Tunisia: Expulsion ‘tip of the iceberg’ in anti-union crackdown

The General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) arrived safely in Brussels this afternoon after being ordered by the Tunisian Government to leave the country after taking part in a protest against its crackdown on trade unions and workers’ rights.

Esther Lynch had travelled to Tunisia as part of a delegation of international union leaders to show solidarity with the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), whose members are being subjected to a campaign of harassment by the country’s government.

On Friday, Lynch met with the General Secretary of the UGTT, Noureddine Taboubi, before taking part in a protest organised by the union in Sfax on Saturday. 

After the protest, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied posted an article on his official website accusing the ETUC General Secretary of breaking the law by threatening the security of the country.

The authorities then confronted Esther Lynch in person, saying that she had 24 hours to leave the country. She was ordered to report to the authorities about her activities – and anyone she spoke to – in the intervening period.

The treatment of the ETUC General Secretary is in line with the campaign of intimidation and harassment being waged against trade unions by President Kais Saied, which has included:

- The arrest of UGTT official Anis Al-Kaabi on January 31 for a legitimate and legal strike
- The sacking of trade union officials
- Malicious lawsuits against trade unionists
- Using law enforcement to monitor and restrict trade union activity
- Promoting yellow trade unions

These tactics are part of a campaign by President Saied to break the union’s resistance to policies which are making ordinary people pay for the country’s economic, social and constitutional crisis. 

The attacks have become more severe since the UGTT and civil society leaders launched a National Rescue Initiative in December to provide fair solutions to the challenges facing the country.  

Tunisia now forms part of a group of countries where there is “no guarantee of rights”, according to the ITUC’s Global Rights Index. It was the only country in the world to move into this group last year. 

ETUC General Secretary Esther Lynch said:

“In Tunisia, I met with UGTT trade union members and leaders. Brave, hardworking, honest and respectable people and a genuine voice for workers concerned about the struggle to make ends meet and that the situation would be made worse by reforms cutting subsidies on food and energy.

“They had many ideas about solutions to the current crisis but instead of being listened to are threatened, intimidated and attacked. What happened to me is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Attacking trade union leaders serves the purpose of making it hard for them to do their work. But also its a message: it demonstrates that if the authorities can attack the strongest, imagine what will happen to the weakest most vulnerable union members.

“The decision to expel me for taking part in a peaceful protest is typical of the harassment and intimidation faced by trade unionists in Tunisia every day. In the past few months, members of the UGTT have been arrested, sacked and spied on simply for carrying out entirely legal trade union work.

“These authoritarian tactics being used against trade unionists and civil society activists, which I experienced at first-hand this weekend, have no place in a democratic country. I call again on President Saied to respect democratic rights and end his attacks on trade unionists.

“Far from silencing me, my treatment this weekend has strengthened my resolve to stand with trade unions in Tunisia and I will raise their treatment at the highest levels of the EU.”

Responding to allegations of ‘interference’ in Tunisia affairs, Lynch added:

“Internationalism and solidarity are at the core of the labour movement, so it’s entirely normal that a trade union leader from Europe should go and stand with workers in Tunisia.

“The message of solidarity, social justice and dialogue I gave at the demonstration in Sfax is no different to the one I have given to workers in France and the UK this month.

“We have called on both the French and UK governments to resolves disputes through negotiations with trade unions rather than by attacks on them – and that is exactly what my message is to the Tunisian government.

“There has been no difference in my approach to solidarity with workers in France, the UK or Tunisia. But the fact I have only been made persona non-grata by one of those countries speaks volumes.”