In Solidarity Issue 35, we interviewed textile workers in Soliman, 40 kilometers south west of Tunis, about their terrible conditions at work. Here, the workers explain how they have made gains by striking.
You have recently conducted strikes in your workplace.
After January 14, we took confidence [from the revolution] and began to organise ourselves spontaneously outside the union who had collaborated with the boss. We discussed the possibility of launching a strike to present our demands to the boss.
Our demands were well defined. Workplace safety, the right to occupational health and safety standards as well as permanent contracts for all workers and the guarantee of work itself. After the strike that we, all the workers, launched following January 14, the boss did not concede.
After one month, we launched another strike. We made another demand that we wanted to be paid at the beginning of the month not on the 15th of each month. The boss did not accept. We also demanded that workers not lose their contracts. Before I was not permanent. Almost every month I would have to renew my contract. After working here seven years, now I have a six month contract.
After the second strike you began to make gains?
The boss began to give workers permanent contracts and pay overtime.
A factory council, a parity council was established. It was composed of representatives of both workers and the boss to debate the questions put forward by the workers. All representatives were elected by the workers themselves. It was composed of eight members, four members representing the workers interests and the others represented the boss.
Did the union or UGTT [Tunisia’s trade union federation] help you with the second strike?
We decided alone. The union was at the first strike but it didn’t do anything. The union is not there to realise the workers demands. The UGTT is a bureaucracy. They are a weakness in the struggle… In this factory, we decided to take the matter into our own hands and impose our demands on the boss. It is better than waiting for the bureaucracy to move.
Was it difficult to mobilise the workers to strike?
It was very difficult. We are not used to doing it. In 15 years, the workers had never tried to self organise to strike. Before … the director of salaries … would say “go to Ben Ali”, just like that, “go to Ben Ali”.
Were you able to achieve wage rises?
For full-time hours our wage is 80-100 dinars a month, almost €50. This is against the law. A young worker earns half a dinar, 500 cents, per hour. After he is 20 years old, he becomes a worker and earns almost 2 dinars an hour.
After the second strike, we received a wage increase of 5 per cent, as specified under the collective bargaining law. It is an increase of 30 cents per hour. We are now asking the boss for a further increase of 18 per cent. We are thinking about striking again next week to ask for this increase.
We demanded that the boss pay us during periods of “technical unemployment”. For example, factories work in busy periods and then production slows down and the workers find themselves without work [in “technical unemployment”]. They must have something to support their life no? So we demanded that the boss pay us 75 per cent of our salaries during these periods of low employment. This was achieved through the second strike.
What will you demand in the third strike?
We will demand information, the right to be informed about the future of the factory.
Do you collaborate with workers in other factories?
In the family you find people who work in other factories. In the evenings, we contact each other and ask how it is all going.
Do you coordinate strikes together or offer solidarity to each other?
Another factory struck with us for the first strike. We contacted them by telephone that day. The other factory is four times bigger than ours. We took the idea from them. There were clients waiting for their merchandise and so we took that as an advantage [to strengthen our struggle].
Would you consider displacing the management and taking control over the factory?
Not at the moment, although there is another factory that did this after the revolution in Soliman. The director has no influence over the workers. The workers took total control over the management but instead of ousting the management, they neutralised it. They have taken the management role into their own hands. It works well and it is moving forward.
Is there a political party that represents your interests?
No… [They use] populist slogans but they don’t focus action on the real contradictions in Tunisia at the moment [which concern] those who want to reappropriate the means of production and those who want to abandon these means in the hands of large business through illegal treaties.