The Tunisian Government has given signals this week that it is will crackdown on production halting ‘sit in’ protests by unemployed individuals demanding public sector employment, even referring to such protests as ‘economic terrorism’. Facing massive drops in the critical phosphates sector, which is Tunisia’s largest non-agricultural export commodity, and two month shutdown at the country’s largest natural gas production facility, the economic impact is now outpacing the drop in tourism revenues which followed the attacks of Bardo and Sousse.
After the Minister of Employment and Vocational Training, Zied Laadhari, commented in exasperation earlier this week that “if sit in protests could resolve unemployment, we would have done it a long time ago.” the tone has toughened. On Tuesday March 22, after a limited cabinet meeting which reviewed the relevant ministries preparations for a “National Dialogue on Employment” scheduled to begin next week. Government spokesman, Khaled Chouket, referring to sit in protests blocking the production and shipping of phosphates, said:
“The protests that take place both on the extraction sites of natural resources elsewhere must stop. The state can no longer remain silent while faced with these protests which are economic terrorism exercised against us, particularly in such a delicate period.”
“Therefore, the state will use all legal means to protect jobs and the workplace. The right to demonstrate and protest is certainly guaranteed, but not at when it is at the expense of productivity and work.”
It is worth noting that Chouket stated he was not referring to strikes or demonstrations by workers. But rather protests by unemployed protesters demanding public sector jobs who stage ‘sit ins’ which block production or transportation of phosphates.
One day after Chouket signaled what seems to amount to a declaration of war against production halting sit ins, eight members of a group of unemployed protesters who staged a ‘sit in’ by constructing a wall to block rail traffic to the El Guettar phosphate production facility were handed prison sentences ranging from six months to two years by the first instance court of Gafsa.
The phosphates sector has been the hardest hit and the problem of sit ins has been endemic since 2011. Production at Metlaoui, Gafsa Governorate, which produces 60% of Tunisia’s phosphate, has been brought to a halt by sit-in protests blocking roads and rails since January 2016.
Earlier in March , the CEO of the Gafsa Phosphate Company (GPC), Romdhane Souid, said the publicly owned company had recorded losses of an estimated 5 billion TND since 2010. Souid said the GPC’s phosphate production was down 60%, since 2010 down to an annual production of 3.2 million tonnes in 2015.
In February, Hafedh Ben Yahiya, the CPG’s Production Manager told TAP that “commercial phosphate production had not exceeded 361,000 tons from January 1 to February 6, down 41% compared to the same period last year.”
But phosphates is not the only sector, and Gafsa Phosphate Company not the only large scale production company facing this problem. The U.K. based oil and gas company Petrofac has also been forced to shut down production of natural gas because of sit ins, also since January. Again by unemployed protesters demanding jobs in the public sector.
The Minister of Energy and Mines Mongi Marzouk and the Minister of Social Affairs Mahmoud Ben Romdhane held unsuccessful meetings, on Tuesday, March 22, with protesters at Petrofac’s Kerkennah facilities to end the sit ins.
Petrofac’s production has now been completely halted for over two months, partial shutdowns and interruptions have plagued it for far longer. The Minister of Commerce, Mohsen Hassen, has repeatedly met with representatives of Petrofac this year after it began giving signals it was considering leaving Tunisia entirely.
Beyond threatening existing jobs, the sit ins by protesters demanding public sector employment, which unlike strikes by workers the companies afflicted have no power to resolve, are considered by foreign investors to be a greater investment risk than terrorism.
The Italian oil and gas company ENI S.p.A pulled out of Tunisia earlier this year, although it maintains its operations in Libya despite several armed attacks on oil and gas facilities. Although the value of oil and gas sites varies greatly, and Libyan production sites certainly appear to be worth the risk, the non financial message this sends is that armed attacks on oil facilities are far less terrifying from an investment standpoint than endless protests by people who don’t even work for you.
Both the Petrofac protests, and the building of the railway ‘wall’ in Gafsa, originated during the January protests which originated in Kasserine after the death of an unemployed protester Ridha Yahyaoui. The protests spread throughout the country and even turned to rioting and looting particularly in Tunis. However, Ridha Yahyaoui, his fellow protesters and those who rallied to join them after Yahyaoui’s death were staging sit ins at the municipal government headquarters in Kasserine.
They staged a sit in protest for public sector jobs, in the place where public sector employment is normally granted, and the protest stemmed from corruption in the process of granting. Despite clashes with police who attempted to dislodge them, the protesters in Kasserine may have broken a few windows in the municipal offices and burned tires, but unlike their ‘imitators’ in Tunis they didn’t loot private business, and even received the recognition and gratitude of the local authorities for their cleanup efforts in the city, despite the fact that they were violating a curfew while doing it they did so peacefully and with purpose. They refused to be dislodged by the security forces, but also refused to destroy their own city and neighborhoods.
In Kasserine the protesters had specific demands relating to government hiring practices and unfulfilled promises by the national government, their sit in concerned the appropriate authority, protests aren’t the problem, strikes aren’t the problem. Stealing from private business during an imitation protest that is really a riot, as occurred in Tunis, or risking the jobs of others because of your employment situation, in a precarious economy, that is a problem.
And although I oppose the misappropriation of the word terrorism for political purposes. The targeting of the employment of others who have nothing to do with, and no power over, your own employment situation, while non-violent, certainly follows the same logic as terrorism in terms of targeting innocents who have nothing to do with the grievance at hand. And frankly, considering the Prime Minister Habib Essid’s own assessment that the Tunisian government already employs three times more public sector employees than it needs, the expectation that such tactics will result in public sector employment is as realistic as the expectation that actual terrorism will bring about anything but death.