Unemployment Law Faces Criticism, Continuing Protests

PhD graduates sleep in front of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research during a sit-in launched on June 29, 2020 calling for jobs. Photo taken from the official Facebook group of the Union of Unemployed PhD graduates, republished by Meshkal with their permission.

A new amendment to a 2012 public sector recruitment law opens the door to hiring university graduates who have been out of work for more than ten years. But skeptics say that even if it is implemented, it would only apply to a handful of people. Meanwhile, graduate students on August 7 marked day 40 of their continuing sit-in protest calling for jobs.

After the 2011 uprising and widespread protests, strikes, and calls for immediate solutions to high unemployment, a 2012 law—number 4/2012—was passed to expand public sector recruitment on an exceptional basis. This law included additional methods of assessing an applicant’s qualifications other than test results and experience, such as age and years since receiving their diploma.

The new amendment to this law, referred to as draft law number 27/2020, was passed on July 29, 2020 during a plenary (full) session of parliament. According to a version shared on Parliament’s official website, the amendment creates an exemption to the state’s recruitment formula [“Sigha”] allowing for “the direct recruitment of those unemployed holding higher degrees that have been unemployed for more than ten years.”

The amendment made it to a full parliament session after making it through parliament’s Committee on Youth and Cultural Affairs, Education and Scientific Research. Introducing the amendment in the plenary session, committee member Mohamed Skhiri from the Qalb Tounes party said that the amendment was the product of more than six months of discussions.

“We have sacrificed our time and will continue to do so to save youth that have been devoured by unemployment and years of injustice,” Skhiri said. “Today, me and my Qalb Tounes bloc will vote yes in this historic moment that I have waited years for, to make our mothers and fathers happy and honor them by recruiting their own [children] who have been unemployed for ten years and to realize the needs of the unemployed.”

Noureddine Bhiri, president of the Ennahda bloc in Tunisian parliament and former Justice Minister said during the same plenary session: “We will be voting for this constitution-respecting law… If this law did not have a benefit we would have said ‘no’ to it, and we would not fear anyone blaming [us] in saying that.” 

The amendment later passed with 159 votes in favor, 18 abstentions, and 0 against, according to the Twitter feed of the non-governmental organization Al-Bawsala, a government watchdog group. However, the amendment drew criticism as it includes numerous eligibility conditions relating to a candidate’s age, graduation year and past record of registering regularly at employment offices.

“This law is not a law that is capable of solving the unemployment issue. It does not carry any meaning or effectiveness,” said Wael Naouar, a former secretary-general of the General Union of Students of Tunisia (UGET by its French acronym) and a member of the Workers Party (a party formerly in coalition with the leftist Popular Front bloc).

“The criteria stipulated in this law could only be described as incapacitating and almost impossible to meet,” he added, speaking to Meshkal in a phone interview.

Samia Abbou, a member of parliament from the Democratic Current party, in a statement during the same plenary session said that the new amendment’s language only changed the formula [“Sigha”] of recruitment but not its conditions.

“The conditions of recruitment are in order to apply…you have to be 40 years old…. Anyone less than 40 years old, holding a higher degree, who has a business registration or CNSS [social security registration] or didn’t register once at an employment office, this law doesn’t apply to him,” Abbou said.

Naouar explained that many young people do not register at employment offices every year, and some will find short-term work that disqualifies them from the exceptional public sector recruitment conditions.

“These conditions make the law lose its essence, which is basically about the state employing its unemployed,” Naouar said.

However, Naouar did not discount the possibility of the new amendment providing a basis for real change in the future, noting that “this law could become a positive one that we could build upon in the direction of having more inclusive ones.”

While some criticized the law as not going far enough, the government criticized it as going too far. Caretaker Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh sent a letter to parliament criticizing the law for the burden it will put on the budget. Yassine Ayari, an independent MP, published a copy of that letter, dated June 28, 2020, on his official Facebook page. In it, Fakhfakh warns of the unconstitutionality of ratifying a law that “destabilizes the state budget,” and that passing the amendment on public sector recruitment would “lead to additional burdens.”

Fakhfakh, in his role as Minister of Finance in a previous government in 2013, played a key role in initiating a loan program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which has come with unpopular austerity conditions including freezing public sector hiring. On April 4, 2020, Prime Minister Fakhfakh was given emergency powers by Parliament to rule by decree without needing immediate parliamentary approval for two months—ostensibly to deal with the coronavirus crisis—but his Minister of Finance Nizar Yaich had already indicated in a radio interview on ExpressFM in mid-March that the government would quickly secure new loans from the IMF [minute 31:38]. A new loan for $745 million was signed on April 10, 2020; a press release from the IMF about the new loan pointed to the need for Tunisia to “limit fiscal pressures,” and “emergency savings in the civil service wage bill,” which may indicate more public sector employment freezes.

“They say this law will increase the burdens on the budget? It won’t burden the budget, because it will be good if this employs [even] 100 people,” given its strict conditions, MP Abbou said in response.

Some critics of the amendment denounced it as empty populism, noting that Parliament is currently facing a legitimacy crisis following the announced resignation of PM Fakhfakh in the wake of a corruption scandal and the apparent breakdown of the governing coalition.

“We must also bear in mind the political atmosphere within which this law was passed, as everyone knows that it was passed within a political disagreement and by parliament members who were looking to save the legitimacy of their status,” Naouar told Meshkal.

Others have also pointed to issues concerning parliament’s legitimacy in recent days. Political analysts Mohamed-Dhia Hammami and Sharan Grewal, in an article for the Project on Middle East Democracy [POMED], pointed to president Kais Saied’s recent statement that “the time has come to review” parliament’s legitimacy. Hammami and Grewal noted that this was “a reference to the unpopularity of the parliament that Saied sees as no longer representative of Tunisians’ aspirations.”

PhD Graduates Hold a Sit-In Calling for Jobs

Despite the recent amendment, there have been continued protests by graduate degree holders over unemployment and what they see as the state’s unwillingness to hire them, despite their skills and qualifications.

On June 29, 2020, a few dozen PhD graduates began what they called an “open sit-in” over unemployment. On August 7, the sit-in marked its 40th day.

Meshkal spoke with Yassine Ben Belgacem, one of the coordinators of the Union of Unemployed PhD Graduates [Union des Docteurs sans Emploi de Tunisie]. Their union had been holding meetings and negotiations with representatives from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research even before the start of the sit-in.

 “This sit-in was not a mere spur-of-the-moment thing…Since 2012 we have been dealing with different stalling and marginalization policies by consecutive governments, each promising lots of talks. But when it comes to concrete application, we have not seen anything, as usual,” said Ben Belgacem, who is also one of the coordinators of the sit-in.

Ben Belgacem referred to himself and the PhD graduates as the “intellectual class” of the country that have always been in struggle.

“In research centers, we work for free without receiving any financial compensation. When you realize that the average age of most PhD graduates is between 35 and 40 but they still don’t have the bare minimum to make ends meet, it becomes a matter of urgency to say: ‘Enough is enough; we can longer be patient.’”

The Union of Unemployed PhD Graduates told Meshkal that their demands for employment at different public sector institutions won’t burden the state budget because there are only about 4000 of them. Moreover, Ben Belgacem argued that their recruitment into the public sector could actually help the budget since it would allow them to use their talents and qualifications to address economic challenges.

“We told them that we don’t want to overburden them by asking for an immediate recruitment. We said we could accept a solution that would guarantee our employment over two batches,” added Ben Belgacem in an interview conducted on July 4.

On July 28, the union announced in a post on their Facebook page that they had another negotiation session with the ministry. According to the statement, the meeting did not go well and the union called it “the last nail in the coffin of the remaining trust we tried to keep for the government party.”

Ben Belgacem said that the resignation of PM Fakhfakh was used an excuse to not commit any promises.

“Before this meeting took place, I received a call from the minister’s advisor letting me know that he had ‘bad news’ as [PM] Elyes Fakhfakh refused to give approval for our employment since they are only a caretaker government at the moment,” Ben Belgacem said in an interview afterwards.

According to Ben Belgacem they were asked to sign an agreement that contained only three points stipulating an increase in the number of contracts instead of what they had asked for initially, which is their long-term recruitment.

“They only cared about breaking up [our sit-in] before Eid, but we refused, and our sit-in is going to continue,” he added.

On July 30, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research said in a statement on its official Facebook page that the issue of PhD graduates had been the focus of several meetings that took place under the supervision of acting Higher Education Minister Lobna Jribi. The statement mentioned increasing the number of teaching contracts to 600 starting in the academic year 2020-2021, among other proposals.

“If PhD graduates are unemployed, we can’t even look at students and tell them to study well so that one day in the future they might achieve their ambitions,” Naouar told Meshkal commenting on the issue.

Sit-ins for Jobs Get Promises, Few Outcomes

Another reason some are skeptical about the recently passed public sector recruitment law is that there are a multitude of laws and agreements that have been reached in recent years that have not been put into effect by authorities.

Naouar offered the example of “the case of Kasserine youth,” who had held a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Professional Training and Employment for over two years beginning in 2016.

“There was a previously-signed agreement between this group of young people and the ministry. However, until now the government has failed to meet all the stipulations of this agreement. Only two batches have been employed so far, but another batch is still awaiting their employment until now,” Naouar told Meshkal.

Youth unemployment in Tunisia has remained stagnant at around 30 percent at least since the 2011 uprising, and these numbers are often higher for rural, interior regions. Many analyses have pointed to unemployment and other socio-economic issues as one factor behind increasing levels of informal migration to Europe.

“I believe that unemployment is the biggest danger to Tunisian youth. unemployment causes depression and causes young people to feel unworthy. Unemployment could lead us to either one of three things: suicide, illegal migration, or terrorism and criminality,” Naouar said. “I am proud though that there are Tunisians who still refrain from all three of these options…but instead hold on to their rights, have peaceful sit-ins, express their opinions, and hold on to their sacred right to life.”

“Both degree and non-degree holders have the right to work and life,” Naouar added.

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this article.