Tunisia’s UGTT union goes on nationwide strike to protest wage crisis

About 650,000 Tunisian state employees went on a nationwide strike on Thursday, after the government rejected UGTT union’s request to raise public sector wages, which could stoke further tensions in the North African country.

Tunisia is also under immense pressure from international lenders, which urged it to freeze wages as part of public sector reforms aimed at reducing the country’s budget deficit.

This decision could prove to be a tough fight for Prime Minister Youssef Chahed if he goes ahead with economic reforms amid political and economic crisis.

The government has refused to increase wages and negotiations also failed because “the sovereign decision is not in the hands of the government, but of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)”, Nourredine Taboubi, head of UGTT, said.

Thousands are expected to join the protest in the capital of Tunis and other cities later in the day against the government’s decision to freeze wages.

The nationwide strike called by UGTT, which comprises about 1 million members, included schools, universities, hospitals, municipalities and ministries.

The country’s economy has been in crisis since the toppling of autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 threw it into turmoil, with unemployment and inflation shooting up.

The government aims to cut the public sector wage bill to 12.5 percent of GDP in 2020 from the current 15.5 percent — one of the world’s highest, according to the IMF.

Public sector wages have doubled to about 16 billion dinars ($5.48 billion) in 2018 from 7.6 billion dinars in 2010, officials say.

The North Africa country had agreed with the IMF in December 2016 on a loan programme worth around $2.8 billion to overhaul its ailing economy with steps to cut chronic deficits and trim bloated public services, but progress has been slow.