In Tunisia, Black Africans face “the harshest exploitation”

Emmanuel severed a phalanx while working on a machine at his job in Tunisia. Photo taken in Sfax, 16 February. (Matthias Raynal)

Jérémie*, an Ivorian in his early thirties who arrived in Tunisia in early 2016, is reluctant to speak out. He says he suffered reprisals after appearing on a television report with his face uncovered. On a large, international French-language channel, he dared to denounce the racism to which he has been subjected in his adopted country. Shortly thereafter, he lost his job as a carpenter at a workshop and says he was arrested by the police. “You want to dishonour our country, you’ll see what happens,” the officer reportedly told him before placing him in detention. He was released after three days thanks to the mobilisation of civil society. Jérémie is shy and speaks softly, his fine features and almond-shaped eyes hidden beneath a cap that he never takes off. In the café where we meet in the eastern port city of Sfax, I have to listen very carefully to be able to hear everything he says. And he has a lot to say.

An engineer in agricultural technology, Jérémie was working as an intern in Côte d’Ivoire in 2013 when the economic crisis hit. His company had to lay off some of its staff and he lost his job. An intermediary then offered him a ‘job’ in Tunisia. “I paid €1000 to come here,” he says, regretfully. Once he arrived in Tunisia, he realised that he was trapped and that the work he was promised had little to do with his skills. He was a “simple farm worker”, he says. “I had to feed 280 cows along with another Ivorian and take care of upkeep on the farm. From 6am to 10pm,” he explains. He lived in a small studio on the farm. “We slept on blankets on the floor.” After four months, he’d had enough. “I packed my bag and told my boss to give me my passport back. I took off.” His boss suggested that he remain for 400 dinars a month (roughly €128 or US$138) but for Jérémie it was “worthless” and he decided to set off for the city.

“I didn’t have any money, I found a neighbourhood where there were Black people. I went to La Poudrière [an industrial district in the city centre] and was able to find work as a mason.” Though conditions there are better, they remain difficult.

“They give us all of the physical work, they think that we ‘Blacks’ are stronger.” Tunisians are better paid, receiving 35 dinars (€11 or US$12) a day while Jérémie and his compatriots have to make do with 20 dinars (€5 or US$6.80). He puts in a lot of hours and is exhausted.

Many Black African migrants workers have experienced similar exploitation, in some cases bordering on modern slavery. This is the lot of almost all of the workers in Sfax, a factory town and economic hub located 300 kilometres south of Tunis, which in recent years has become home to a growing population of African migrants employed in industry and agriculture. Since the revolution of 2011, Tunisia has seen a new influx of workers from countries to its south. It represents an enormous challenge for the country, which has historically exported its labour force. According to sociologist Mustapha Nasraoui, “[Tunisia] wasn’t prepared for labour immigration.” The most recent arrivals integrate into the employment market as best they can, finding work in the “informal of the informal.” In Sfax, migrants have become the new slave labour of the Tunisian economy.

Forced labour

Most of them are Ivorians. This is reflected in the figures of Terre d’Asile-Tunisie, consulted by Equal Times, which runs two legal and migrant aid centres in Tunis and in Sfax, designed as spaces for sharing stories and providing information and support to migrants experiencing difficulties in Tunisia. Three-quarters of those they help (77 per cent) are from Côte d’Ivoire. This is explained by the fact that Ivorians don’t require a visa for Tunisia, but above all, by the human trafficking networks that exist between the two countries. “In Abidjan, it’s very well organised. They’re like on-site recruitment agencies,” says Joachim*, who has spent years campaigning for migrants’ rights in Sfax.

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He knows all of the inner workings of the recruitment channels through which the majority of Ivorian workers arrive in Tunisia. A ‘commission’ must be paid to the intermediary who finds the ‘job’ and buys the plane ticket “while a recruiter working with the employer in Tunisia gets money for the ticket and the commission. They essentially get paid twice for the same thing. It’s a real business.” Migrants arrive at the airport and are taken directly to their new workplaces. Their passports are confiscated.

“The workers think, ‘Well I just got here, maybe this person is providing me protection,’” but their passports are actually taken as a deposit because, according to the deal between the smuggler and the employer, the worker is not paid for several months in order to repay the sum paid by the employer to the recruiter. But the worker doesn’t know any of this at first.” This ‘contract’ period is characterised by the harshest level of exploitation, explains Falikou*, president of an association that helps Ivorians working in Sfax.

“It’s like prison,” he says, comparing it to “forced labour.” Living conditions are “extreme.” In the olive fields and on the farms, workers sleep on site in small structures normally used to store materials that are not suitable as living quarters. “It’s very cold in winter. The houses are exposed to the wind. There’s no heating, there’s nothing. There’s not even hot water for people to wash themselves with.”

Falikou spends his entire weeks traveling around the city, with no schedule and no days off, to help deal with the “problems” faced by the community. His phone never stops ringing. He sometimes acts as a mediator to settle conflicts between migrants or to negotiate the payment of salaries, which is a problem with numerous employers. The legal procedure is long and tedious. “We contact the employer directly and if he refuses to pay we go to the police.” He claims to have had success about half a dozen times.

In the workshops and farms of Sfax, migrants have little choice but to work illegally. Tunisian law is strict. According to the Association of Leadership and Development in Africa (Alda): “Possibilities for regularisation are very slim. Nothing prohibits the employment of foreigners in Tunisia, however, the principle of so-called national preference is applied. If you want to employ a foreigner, you have to prove that the skill does not exist locally. It’s very difficult to make the case that there are no agricultural workers in Tunisia.”

Black African workers have almost no chance of obtaining a contract and a residency permit. According to sociologist Vincent Geisser: “Tunisian labour law is a machine for producing irregularity.” In light of this situation, the International Labour Organization has asked Tunisia to revise its legal framework, reminding it that it has yet to ratify several international conventions on the protection of migrant workers’ rights.

However, some economic actors have become aware of the problem. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, Tunisia, a developing country with a high unemployment rate (close to 15 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2019), needs foreign labour. “We view immigration as a plus for our economy,” says Hamadi Mesrati, deputy secretary general of the Sfax branch of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). Since 2019, he has also been running a space for migrants where he receives them, informs them of their rights and tries to help them.

That same year, the trade union centre set up four resources centres for migrant workers, in Tunis, Sousse and Medenine, as well as Sfax. UGTT will soon launch a trade union structure dedicated to defending foreign workers. A 2012 study by the Tunisian Centre for Monitoring and Economic Intelligence put an exact figure on the labour needs of the economy and the sectors concerned: agriculture, industry, construction and public works, as well as tourism. There were then 120,000 jobs to be filled in Tunisian companies, excluding agriculture and administration.

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The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is currently preparing a similar study to “show the benefits in particular that the Tunisian economy could derive from inclusion in the formal sector of migrants who are already present in the national territory but who are currently working in the informal sector,” says Paola Pace, head of the IOM in Tunisia. The report is expected to be published in June.

Alda acknowledges the need to talk “in numbers” in order to convince Tunisian society but calls for no distinction to be made between migrants who would benefit the economy and those who would not. According to the association, the humanitarian dimension should not be neglected. Undocumented, without legal or social protection, under constant threat of being arrested by the police and deported, migrants are at the mercy of their employers.

Work accidents

Emmanuel* shows Equal Times his disfigured hand. It is missing the tip of his index finger, which was taken off by a machine normally used to cut metal tubes. He is angry with his boss for providing him no help during his two months of convalescence but has now returned to the workshop that employs 50 people, “almost all of them Black”. He tells Equal Times: “I had no choice.” The head the company paid for the operation to reconstruct his severed finger but didn’t pay one dinar more. Emmanuel had to support himself. “He told me that the treatment cost twice my salary.”

There are many stories like Emmanuel’s. One young man lost three fingers. Another was luckier to lose only one. One worker is at risk of becoming permanently handicapped due to a poorly treated foot fracture. “When people employed to work in a factory have to use machines for which they have not been trained there are many risks, there are a lot of workplace accidents,” says Falikou. “But unfortunately, these people, who are hired under the table, have no insurance. When an accident happens, employers send their employees to hospital. But when it’s serious, they abandon their employees because they know that it will turn into a problem for them. This happens all the time.”

No figures or census exist, but in Sfax, everyone knows at least one person who has been injured. The stories of these victims of economic exploitation often emerge in bits and pieces. The names and ages have been forgotten. And the same goes for the deaths, of which there have been at least two in Sfax since 2018 according to a source at Terre d’Asile Tunisie. Even then no one keeps an exact count.

Falikou has only been the president of his association for a few months and he is already weary. “This problem has to be solved at the source. It’s a truly taboo subject. The exploitation will continue as long as foreign workers don’t have legal status. And therein lies the problem.” He continues: “It’s very difficult for the Tunisian authorities, they make it clear. Unemployment is high and allowing foreigners to work might be frowned upon, lead to revolts, protests.” The regulatory framework has barely changed in more than 30 years. “The government has to act. The texts have to be rewritten,” says Hamdi Ben Nasser, a member of Terre d’Asile Tunisie.

Jérémie, for his part, is searching for solutions. He has decided to become his own employer to “stop being exploited, stop working for someone who pays you scraps and doesn’t take into account your skills, to finally become self-sufficient.” He founded an agricultural consulting business but his problems are far from over. “I can’t open a bank account, there are so many impediments, it’s really complicated for foreigners.” He is still waiting for his residency permit. This story has been translated from French.

*All first names have been changed

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