Rail, bus and air traffic stopped in Tunisia today as the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) staged a one-day nationwide strike to protest against the government's refusal to raise the salaries of 670,000 public servants.
The country has struggled to freeze public sector wages as part of reforms to help reduce its budget deficit demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Tunisian Prime Minister, Youssef Chahed, said yesterday that the strike would be expensive but stressed that the government could not raise wages disproportionately to the state's ability to afford it.
The strike has also hit schools, hospitals, state media and government offices, with thousands of people taking to the streets in demonstrations protesting against poor economic management.
Tunisia's state-owned airline Tunisair announced today that it expects major disruptions to its flight schedule due to the strike, urging customers to change bookings. Flights at Tunis-Carthage airport were cancelled, leaving passengers stranded.
Sami Tahri, Deputy Secretary-General of the UGTT, said the government had come under the dictates of the IMF and had opted for a confrontation with public servants in a bid to find a solution. The government had reportedly proposed to spend about $400 million on pay rises, whereas UGTT had asked for $850 million.
The government aims to cut the public sector wage bill to 12.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2020, down from the current 15.5 per cent which is one of the world's highest, according to the IMF.
Tunisians have been battling with several austerity measures as part of the government's commitment to an IMF conditional loan programme in 2016 worth some $2.8 billion. The country has witnessed dozens of protests since last year over cuts to wages and the subsidies of basic food staples, amid high unemployment and inflation.
"The Tunisian people have been acutely feeling the rising costs of living and it's been difficult to bear for many. Today's strike is an attempt to send a message to the government about wages and inflation, but it's also a much broader message of concern about global economic markets and policies," Mariem Masmoudi of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Tunis told MEMO.
"Though understandable, this is not the sort of conversation that can really be had between any two parties, but really requires a much larger campaign to explain the changes the country is undergoing to the people directly, to hear their complaints, and to show them tangibly how the government proposes to address their concerns," she added.
Teachers in Tunisia have been engaged in a boycott of exams since December, demanding an increase in financial benefits as well as a restructuring of the education sector. Tension between the government and the educational sector has been ongoing for three years due to disagreements over the increase in special grants and professional promotions, in addition to the Union's accusation that the Ministry of Education is reneging on previous agreements.
Tunisia's economy has been in turmoil since the 2011 revolution toppled President Zein El-Abidine Ben Ali. Slow economic growth has also been complicated by continuing political instability; the country has witnessed seven prime ministers since the ousting of Ben Ali and government reshuffles are a regular occurrence.
Impatience has also been rising among lenders such as the IMF, which have kept the country afloat with billions of dollars in loans.
Last month, Chahed said his government could not find the political support to implement economic reforms, subsequently appointing ten new ministers in a cabinet reshuffle in a renewed attempt to resolve the crisis. However, in a sign of growing distrust inside the ruling party, President Beji Caid Essebsi rejected the reshuffle, stating that the prime minister authorised it without consulting him.