Within the context of the declining textile industry and rising unemployment, the fate of 67 women workers of Mamotex in Chebba, a factory specialized in confection for European brands, seemed sealed. After twenty years of business, the company owner decided to close its doors, threatening the jobs of its employees who were left without payment since the beginning of the year. In the course of their unfortunate vicissitudes, the workers have learnt to unite and to claim their rights, obtaining the provisional self-management of the factory last March: a first in Tunisia, which however, did not have a happy ending.
Years of humiliation
The women workers in front of Mamotex after its closure with a banner claiming their right to work, above them the flag of the UGTT (Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens), the powerful union of Tunisian workers. Photo by Monia Ben Hamadi
“It’s been twenty years that they have been oppressing and terrorizing us.” Leila Deyyek works in the factory since it opened, and she has had too much. In addition to terrible working conditions, there was also almost daily humiliation.
“At the slightest error, they used to make the guilty worker stand near the door, facing the wall”, testifies this mother of three kids, all students now. “They used to control us all the time and as soon as somebody started talking they used to shout at them. They would also throw stuff at their face.”
Thanks to years of experience, Leila became “chief export controller”. “Nevertheless, sometimes the director yelled at me, at my age!” she says disconsolately.
Leila Deyyek works in the same factory for 20 years. She participated in the creation of a trade union within Mamotex, despite pressure from the direction. Photo by Monia Ben Hamadi.
Physical and psychological violence are added to long periods of insecurity and instability. “Everything was underestimated: the bonus, the salary, the overtime, open-ended contracts…” The workers sometimes had to wait several months to get their salary. As for the social security (Caisse Nationale de Sécurité Sociale), it was paid in “every other time”.
Houda Charfeddine has three children, with one of 9 months. Her husband is a fisherman. The two hope to maintain their children “decently” with their two salaries. When she works, Houda leaves the baby to a neighbour. Photo by Monia Ben Hamadi.
The fight for dignity
At the end of 2013, the workers decide to rebel against the boss and create their own union, affiliated to the UGTT: “Since then, our working conditions have improved considerably! We have regained our dignity. Dignity is the most important thing, even more than the bread”, Leila, born into a family of trade unionists, says proudly. For others, trade union work has provided the opportunity to get acquainted with the labour code.
The boss of Mamotex has tried to influence the women, oppressing them and in some cases bringing up their husbands, brothers or fathers. But they stood firm. Only a handful is involved in the union out of fear of reprisals. “Little by little”, even the most skeptical ones have come to understand that unity creates strength. “Now no one yells at us. When it happens, we stop working.”
After the birth of the union, despite some delays, the salary was paid every month, and many of the workers were officially registered. Despite some abuse, at least things were clearer. “Before we did not even know how to check if the payment for the social security (CNSS) was made. Only with the union we really know how things work”, admits Houda.
“Now we converse between us, talk about our salaries, working conditions… We make our voices heard to demand what belongs to us by law. From a personal point of view, adds Houda, I learned a lot, but most importantly I learned that one has to fight to defend their rights.”
Many women, including many workers, use scooters in Chebba. Photo by Monia Ben Hamadi.
An unexpected self-management
When in January 2016, the boss Mounir Idriss announced to his employees that the year-end bonus would not be paid and that he had no more money to pay their salaries, Leila, Wassila and other colleagues protested. According to the owner, the company was doing badly since 2011 when the general revolt had shaken the country, mainly because of the economic conjecture and workers' demands: “They have begun to demand better working conditions and a pay rise. I was not able to accept their conditions, the textile market was going through a deep crisis. The problems started when the workers have set up the union”, explains the director fervently.
This humiliation is the final straw to break the camel’s back. Women workers mobilize and protest for weeks. After a month of fighting and endless negotiations, an unprecedented agreement is signed between the state, the union and the owner of the company.
The 67 female workers obtain total self-management of the factory, the benefits are used to pay the backlog of wages. It's an absolute first in Tunisia. “The secretary manages the terms with the members of the union - the owner didn’t do anything - We just want a steady salary, and to recover the money in backlog owed to us, not any profits”, says Leila. “We are ready to make a sacrifice for some time, just to save the factory and maintain our jobs”, concludes Houda.
Five months later… back to square one
It is completely deserted in front of the dilapidated Mamotex. Five months after the closure of the factory, Wassila Lachtar and Leila Deyyek proudly show what’s left of the banners still hanging from lampposts and the mottos inscribed on the brick walls. They evoke the memories of the long strike. Leila, with a smile on her face, writes, «يا سارق» (“thief” in Arabic) on the chained gate. Wassila is more discreet.
The victory of last March was not enough, the struggle continues for these suspended workers: Sodrico, the company owned by Mounir Idriss’s cousin, used to provide raw material and buy clothes from Mamotex. Its director, after undertaking verbally to provide the workers of Mamotex with the raw material, changed his mind and refused to deliver the fabric needed to prepare the products. According to Sabri Kileli, the lawyer of Mamotex and Sodrico, the company fears “that the production may be withheld by the workers, and that orders will not be executed on time”. For the workers of Mamotex it is a catastrophe: cutting off their supply of raw material, the entrepreneurs of Sodrico and Mamotex have de facto neutralized the self-management.
Wassila behind the counter of the improvised shop in her garage.
After more than twenty years in the textile industry, Wassila Lachtar is unemployed. She is desperate, she does not know how to support her family. Her son and her husband are both fishermen, but their income is not enough. “I have a family, and debts… We can’t reach the end of the month”, she says with tears in her eyes. While waiting to find a job, Wassila has transformed her garage into a shop for recycled objects.
In front of her future home, Leila smiles imagining the completion of the construction.
In a calm neighbourhood outside the center of Chebba we meet Leila Deyyek again. She shows us the construction of her future home. This mother has worked all her life in the textile industry, including the 20 years in Mamotex with Wassila. “Despite the salary of 500 dinars, I was able to raise my three kids”, Leila affirms proudly. “One is a doctor, another a PhD student, and the third is a commercial manager. At least they will have a better life!”
During the protests of last January, the words “thief” and “charlatan” are tagged to the entrance sign of Mamotex.
Many former workers of Mamotex, especially the younger ones, have preferred to look elsewhere for work. Unlike Wassila, about ten of them have found a job quickly. “The situation is difficult for women over 30, she says, other textile companies hire only the young, they know how tiring and ungrateful this job is. They are afraid that women of a certain age to may bring down the performance rate… Still, it's thanks to the work of controllers like Leila, to my work as trainer and to that of other veterans that Mamotex enjoys such a good reputation!” she exclaims.
But the workers refuse to surrender. In February, after giving up on the possibility of an eventual reopening, they decided to sue the owner of Mamotex. They requested the payment of the salary of January, the performance bonuses, unemployment benefits and social security (CNSS). “We brought the case to the court because of the mala fide of Sodrico and Mamotex”, explains Wassila, “It was the ultimate solution. We told ourselves that maybe there is a bit of a justice in Tunisia…”
Each worker has filed three complaints, for a total of about 150. The cases about the salaries, bonuses and unemployment benefits have been won, the one about the social security instead was deferred. Wassila jealously keeps the documents that prove these victories, but she remains lucid: “Although we won, I have neither money nor work.”
Actually, “even though these women have won the cases, they have very little chance of getting their money”, says the lawyer Kileli. “The company has more than 200,000 dinars of debt, and my client is not able to reimburse its former employees”. The justice clerk in charge of the reimbursement procedure should soon make an inspection and estimate the value of the factory’s assets. But Leila and Wassila know very well that the rusty machinery of Mamotex will not cover the debts of the entrepreneur.
Employees of Sodrico and Mamotex complain about their working conditions at the headquarters of the UGTT.
The court is currently performing a financial analysis to determine if bankruptcy could be avoided or if an economic straightening could be possible. In this case, the manager could take over the reins of Mamotex, and certainly some workers would be ready to drop the complaint and go back to work for Mounir Idriss… even without the reimbursement of the salary of January.
This is the case of Wassila. She hardly holds back her tears… “I have sacrificed my youth, I have wasted my energy for this job for twenty years and now I have nothing…”
Monia Ben Hamadi, Haïfa Mzalouat et Erige Sehiri