Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Trade Unions' Role in New Tunisia

Workers’ organise to bring change and political progress.
By Jamel Bettaieb
  • Tunisians take part in a protest calling on the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), to withdraw from the newly formed interim government in Tunis,  January 2011. (Photo: Nasser Nouri/Flickr)
    Tunisians take part in a protest calling on the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), to withdraw from the newly formed interim government in Tunis, January 2011. (Photo: Nasser Nouri/Flickr)

The revolution was spontaneous, carried out by ordinary, simple people. But because opposition political parties were not at all powerful, it was the trade unions which rallied to lead the protests. This was the way to defend workers, address social and political problems, as well as provide a platform to criticise then president Ben Ali.

The public sector in Tunisia is relatively well-off and privileged in terms of workers’ rights. But in the private sector they lack protection. There are serious issues regarding the provision of holidays, paid overtime, and the absence of contracts. In the past, many in the private sector were afraid to join a trade union, which might have protected their rights. However, since the revolution, membership has really grown and a lot of new federations have been set up. I joined the Tunisian General Labour Union, UGTT, in 2007 soon after I became a teacher - I teach German and live in Sidi Bouzid, the town where the revolution began.

The most pressing problem in Tunisia is that of unemployment. Many young people who have graduated from university cannot find jobs. The United States and Europe need to channel a lot of investment into this country to help solve this problem. Our current sources of income are not enough. Tourism is seasonal and unreliable. Employment in agriculture is limited. Our traditional industries tend to be textiles and construction – and they need modernising.

In the urban centres along the coast, the situation is better because there is tourism infrastructure, ports and industry. In the interior, however, places like Sidi Bouzid are forgotten towns. They have no infrastructure, no large employers. Poverty is high and there is a high number of jobless – all the negative social phenomena you can think of. That is why the revolution began in these places.

I remember when Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire – I did not know him, but I was amongst those who went to the hospital to visit him, and came back to the centre of the town to protest. People were already angry, and this incident just brought everything to a head. Even before then, everywhere you went – in cafes, taxis, in the street – all the talk was about the regime, the corruption of Ben Ali’s family, the unemployment.

I have started my own organisation now, called The Second Republic. Tunisia is now a republic and we want it to be a real one, so the first goal of this body is to protect the principles of democracy, citizenship and increase the potential of people to become involved in politics. Work also needs to be done to ensure we have legislative, judicial and political independence. We need to explain just what democracy is to the public, because not everyone understands what it involves. We will aim to include both young and old people – in fact everyone who wants democracy – but the role of the youth remains very important as they represent the future of our country.

I am confident about the coming election, particularly because it seems no single party will be able to get a majority. One party, the Tunisian Workers Party, PTT, has been formed with a lot of trade union backing and activist involvement in it. Its leader, Abdejlil Bedoui, is a technocrat from the UGTT who is very clever and capable, and the party will focus on workers’ rights and social welfare.

But there are elements from the former regime that are still active and want to disrupt the democratic process, through violence and friction between different groups and regions of the country. As Tunisians, we need to continue to take care of our revolution.

Jamel Bettaieb is a 30-year-old teacher and trade union activist from Sidi Bouzid and a recipient of the 2011 Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.