Tunisian workers: ‘They are drinking our money’

A striking worker, Tarek Slama, in Tunis, Tunisia.

Members of the Tunisian agricultural workers union staged a strike and sit-in Nov. 2 to protest managerial corruption and the withholding of workers' wages and benefits, some still unpaid from 2009. In the words of one employee: “They are drinking our money, smoking our money.”

At a wheat granary just outside Tunis, two dozen workers, on strike for almost a month because of unpaid wages and corruption at the silo, held up three signs, reading:

  • “No to the violation of union rights; the union has never and will never give up its wages and benefits.”
  • “We have discovered corruption and brought our case to court, but instead stand accused of ruining our company. We want accountability for this bad management.”
  • “The cooperative belongs to the workers and not to those who exploit it for profit.”

In 2006, the union accepted some layoffs in eight categories—mainly early retirements by workers over age 45—but the government failed to keep up its side of the bargain and clean up corruption, according to Nabil Jebnouni, secretary-general of the regional union in Manouba.

Three women who work at the silo joined the protest. “Things used to work really well here,” says one of the secretaries, who asked not to be named, adding that workers in the past had received profit-sharing bonuses once a year, after the harvest, in a lump sum that could be equivalent to their salary. Since 2009, those payments have been doled out in small amounts, and during the past two months, nothing.

The workers say they expect to stay on strike as long as it takes to resolve the issues, restore the workers' jobs and wages, and end corruption.

“This is an independent union and the workers are all that counts,” says the secretary, as the men chant, “I will sacrifice my blood and soul for you, my union.”

Silo worker Sami Hafidhi says reforms must come soon. During the revolution, he says, the workers held off on their claims in the expectation that a new government would address these problems later. However, the government has not responded, deferring to management.

“We will not stop,” Hafidhi says. “We will not go back to work if there is no solution.”

Meanwhile, other members of the Federation of Tunisian Agricultural Workers are staging a sit-in at the downtown headquarters of the Central Cooperative of Agriculture, guarding the documentation of corruption they uncovered and protesting the layoffs of 300 to 400 agricultural workers nationwide.

Specifically, the workers are accusing the former general director of the agricultural ministry of walking off with more than 10,000 Dinars (about 2,500 Euros) of money he was not entitled to; he claimed them for wages and gasoline expenses. The workers filed their case against the executive October 14.

“They are drinking our money, smoking our money,” says Tarek Slama, who is in charge of trucks in the operations and maintenance division. “The current executive says he can do nothing, but we have proof. These are the auditors' reports, and yet nothing has changed. We are asking them to be responsible for what they have done. The evidence incriminates them. The office is sealed off, with all the files inside.”

The workers want their story told around the world. They know that workers everywhere have been watching Tunisia's emerging democracy in hopes of fulfilling the promise of the Arab Spring.

“We want everybody to know that the family of the ex-president, along with his in-laws, left the country—at least they left,” Slama says, “but many thieves remain.”

The general secretary of the Federation of Tunisian Agricultural Workers, Hassen Ghodbane, notes that food is essential to any country, so during the revolution, the agricultural workers continued to do their jobs and ensure the food supply, thus supporting the revolution by feeding the nation.

But they have waited long enough, and now they have authorized a strike for November 15-17. The union is expecting a large turnout of its membership, which has grown from about 22,000 to 36,000 members in four months.

“Our work is like the pace of agriculture itself,” says Ghodbane, “from drought to rain to growth.”

(Photo: Maria Wattne)