The Tunisian phosphate industry, a pillar of the nation’s economy, has been crippled by ongoing protests that have slowed or halted production in the area around the city of Gafsa.
Unemployed job-seekers have prevented access to phosphate production facilities in Om Laarayes and Rudayyif, preventing them from operating and dramatically slashing revenues of the state-controlled phosphate production company.
“These anarchic protests will make Tunisia lose several international markets and put an end to the activities of the Gafsa Chemical Group,” said President Moncef Marzouki at a Labor Day ceremony yesterday. He asserted that the crisis would cost Tunisia 2 billion dinars a year in lost revenue, according to state news agency TAP.
“It is a slow suicide,” Marzouki said.
Phosphate extraction dominates the economy of Gafsa, but the region has struggled economically in recent years.
Gafsa has a history of uprisings and demonstrations. In 2008, it was home to a series of strikes and unrest in which at least three people died, dozens were hurt, and hundreds arrested. This is considered by some to be the beginning of the revolution that ousted former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.
“Our activities and production are paralyzed,” said Ali Houchati of the Gafsa Phosphate Company, a public enterprise managing the extraction of phosphate. He added that if the problems continue, the company will go bankrupt by the end of the year.
The labor issues have had a very negative effect on the company, according to Houchati. Production dropped 70 percent after the revolution, he said, falling from eight million metric tons in 2010 to 2.6 million in 2012. In Om Laarayes, one of the four regions in which phosphate is extracted, there has been no production at all since unrest began in 2011. In the Redeif region, only a small amount is being produced.
Houchati emphasized that the labor unrest was not a strike. He said that unemployed people were preventing employees from working, but that the workers themselves were not refusing to do their jobs.
Ali Abdallah, a union leader in Gafsa, said that while the protests of unemployed workers are a problem, current employees in the phosphate industry have demands as well, and are seeking a wage increase from the government.
There are also broader concerns about workplace safety and security. Abdallah told Tunisia Live that the company lacks adequate safety equipment. He also criticized it for failing to prevent the unemployed protestors from surrounding company facilities and preventing workers from entering the premises.
A negotiation session to discuss these issues was held last week between union members and representatives of the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Industry, according to Abdallah, but no agreement was reached.
Houchati says that the company has been in lengthy discussions with the workers, but that they have gone nowhere.
The company has recruited over 2,500 new employees since February of this year, Houchati said, and 3,000 workers formerly hired by contracting firms have been made full employees, giving them greater rights.
The company disputes allegations of unsafe conditions. Safety is adequate, Houchati said, and it was only in the past when dangerous underground mines were used that workplace safety was a problem. Now phosphate extraction is done in surface mines, he said, and it is rare that any kind of deadly accident occurs. If an accident happens, he said, it is due to a worker not paying attention.
Responding to broader security concerns regarding the unemployed workers blocking company sites, he said that the company was looking into security solutions, and hopes to see the police intervene.
Amira Masrour contributed reporting.