Transport unions around the globe condemn crackdown on Tunisian workers

21 Feb 2023
  • The International Transport Workers’ Federation and the European Transport Workers’ Federation, representing 20 million transport workers around the world, condemn the Tunisian Government’s attack on trade unions.
  • The crackdown, which has seen union leaders arrested and detained, comes in response to unprecedented protests against a power grab by President Kais Saied.
  • Unions also denounced the Tunisian Government’s expulsion of European Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Esther Lynch.

Trade unions representing 20 million transport workers around the world have slammed a crackdown on trade unions and civil rights, which has seen union leaders, politicians, and journalists arrested and detained. Union leaders have accused President Saied of attempting to silence dissent in order to deflect attention and blame for the country’s economic troubles.

Stephen Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), has demanded the release of arrested union leaders and an end to the “autocratic power-grab” of President Saied. “We are demanding the immediate release of all jailed union and opposition leaders and for the Tunisian Government to enter into serious, good-faith dialogue with unions on a way forward for the country.”

“Cowardly Saied, the union is not afraid.”

Union leaders from ITF affiliate the Fédération Nationale des Transports (FNT) have been targeted after the union took legal strike action over the government’s failure to implement collective agreements. FNT leaders were summoned by police for questioning, with some held for over 12 hours of interrogations. Police have now issued fresh summons for the 24th of February.

ITF joined calls for the immediate release of Anis Kaabi, General Secretary of Tunisia’s Highway Workers’ Union, who was arrested on the 1st of February.

“This kind of repression and bullying show the Saied Government’s complete lack of respect for workers’ fundamental rights to strike, to protest and for freedom of speech,” said Cotton. “And this week, ITF affiliated unions from across the Arab World are meeting in Oran, Algeria, where we will collectively discuss how we support our Tunisian affiliates.”

Members of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) union also defied bans and threats to their right to strike and protest to lead the biggest protests that the country has seen since the 2011 revolution, as well as nationwide strikes that have brought the country to a standstill.

The Tunisian parliament was shut down in 2021, and the President recently granted himself the power to unilaterally dismiss judges shortly before sacking 57 members of the judiciary. The move has been slammed by Amnesty International as striking a “hammer blow to judicial independence”.

“President Saied is leading his country down the route of autocracy and totalitarianism. While ordinary working Tunisians suffer the consequences of Mr Saied’s failed economic policies,said ITF President Paddy Crumlin. “His autocratic and draconian crackdown only seeks to protect himself by shutting down dissenting voices, but this dangerous attack on basic democratic freedoms offers no solutions to the country’s woes.”

“You cannot resolve a country’s economic troubles by attacking the very people who make the economy move. Trade unions and workers know better than anyone else what needs done. These moves from President Saied will make the situation worse, not better, and we call on the Tunisian Government to change course.”

In what was seen by many as an escalation of the crackdown, Tunisian authorities have expelled Esther Lynch, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), for addressing a protest called by the UGTT.

“In any crisis, the voices of workers must be a part of the solution. Instead of listening to these voices, President Saied is attacking them. But this undemocratic and wrong-headed assault on workers will only make the situation worse,” said Livia Spera, General Secretary of the European Transport Workers’ Federation ETF, who joined the international condemnation of the Saied Government.

“The situation for working people in Tunisia is becoming unsustainable. Free and democratic trade unions are needed now more than ever. The expulsion of international trade unionists is short-sighted and will only result in drawing yet more international attention to the President’s undemocratic attempts to seize power and more support from trade unions in Europe and globally.”

Frank Moreels, President of the ETF, today demanded an immediate end to the repression of union Tunisian leaders:

“The expulsion of the leader of the European trade union movement sheds light on how serious the situation in Tunisia is. Trade unions are all too often among the targets of undemocratic governments, and that is why it is so important that we stand by our comrades in Tunisia. And there is no doubt that we are going to do so.”