Shafted: Revolution fails to produce jobs for Tunisian miners

It's a year since raging protests spurred by high unemployment and corruption brought regime change in Tunisia. But the economic problems that fueled the discontent are as bad under the provisional government as they were under President Ben Ali.

­The Gafsa Governorate is a region where things are run a little differently from the rest of Tunisia.  It is home to the country’s phosphate mines, which have largely dictated the rhythm of people’s lives.

“My father worked in the mine for 25 years, my two brothers worked and died in the mine. We live in the mining region. Our day is arranged by the sound of the horn from the mine, not by calls to prayer,” says Bechir Laabidi, a teacher and activist.

Minerals are one of the key exports from the country, which ranks fifth in the world for phosphate production. Yet for the past three years, the workers and their families have been involved in a bitter struggle with their employer, Gafsa Phosphates.

“We never took anything from the government, and the authorities have always forgotten about us. This year the Gafsa Phosphates Company – or CFG – conducted a competition for jobs, just like they did in 2008. We hoped their choices would be based on different criteria this time, but they weren’t,” Laabidi says.

His involvement in support actions for the miners during the authoritarian rule of President Ben Ali resulted in a prison term.

“In 2008 we went on strike with the miners, and were arrested. All those who supported them – lawyers, teachers, professors – we were told we’re an organized gang who wanted to overthrow the regime,” he recalls.

That government is long gone, but the problems have remained, so the strikes continue.

Unemployment in the region is at a staggering 55 per cent. And while local residents believe they should be given priority when it comes to filling jobs at the mine, the CGF has been employing people from other regions.

“There are no jobs for those whose parents died or were injured in the mines. Their families never received any compensation for their loss. We’ve been protesting here for six months. We will stay here for a year, two years – however long it takes to resolve this problem,” says Akhmed, one of the locals involved in the protest.

Though many Tunisians hoped the ousting of the autocratic Ben Ali would improve situation in the country, the reality remains bleak.

“The revolution hasn’t solved the economic issues which have been happening for months now. The provisional government hasn’t even begun looking at ways of battling poverty,”
explains Professor Leila Blili from the Manouba University.

For Gafsa workers, any delay in solving this crisis literally costs lives.

“People are killing themselves, others are leaving the country, and some have died because they were too poor to afford medical help,” one of them told RT.

The provisional government, which came to power after the Tunisian revolution, promised a life of prosperity for the miners. Months have since passed by, and, miners say, things have only got worse. Strike action continues, but the region's location, far from the political center, means their protests are as invisible to the new authorities as they were to the old ones.