Road accidents don’t often rise to the level of national tragedies. But when 12 people died in a road collision on Saturday in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, the national outcry was so great that Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was prompted to meet the families of some of the victims the next day in their mountain hamlet. One reason was that many of the victims on Saturday were poor, female farm workers, and similar deadly incidents over recent years indicate that many such workers are transported on overcrowded, unsafe trucks while state officials have been sharply criticized for failing to protect the lives of these workers.
The accident occurred when a truck carrying female agricultural workers and a truck carrying poultry collided, killing 7 women, 5 men, and wounding 20 others Tunisia’s state news agency TAP reported, citing the state’s regional director of health in Sidi Bouzid Mohamed Zaher.
On Sunday, Nessryne Jelalia, a prominent civil society activist based in the capital Tunis, travelled to Blahdia–the home hamlet of the women who died in Saturday’s accident–along with other activists including a group organized by the Association of Tunisian Women for Development Research (AFTURD).
“What I saw yesterday I hardly ever saw it before in Tunisia,” Jelalia told Meshkal on Monday, recounting the conditions of poverty in Blahdia.
According Jelalia, she and other activists had made the visit to convey their condolences and show their solidarity. Jelalia described Blahdia as a tiny mountainside hamlet of about 30 houses where most of the families are interrelated by marriage. By her account, she entered nearly all of the houses in the hamlet including the one the prime minister had visited earlier that morning. According to her, none of the houses had running water or mattresses. About a quarter of the hamlet’s households have a donkey which they use to bring water back from a public fountain a few kilometers away. Jelalia observed health conditions linked to lack of hygiene and running water as well as undernourished children, in addition to psychological issues that have now arrived with the collective trauma they suffered on Saturday.
“The entire town cemetery used to have ten graves. In 24 hours, they have 12 extra graves,” said Jelalia.
Jelalia reports that most of the people she talked to in the hamlet were cynical about the visit of Tunisia’s prime minister and the assurances he allegedly made to address their social demands, telling her that they are used to politicians visiting before elections and making promises (both parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for the fall).
In an interview with Jawhara FM radio station on Saturday, the Minister of Women, Families, Children and the Elderly, Neziha Labidi, said that the government was not responsible for the accident and that the driver of the truck bore the primary responsibility. Interior Minister Hicham Fourati was cited by the state news agency TAP on Saturday as saying a judicial inquiry had been opened in Sidi Bouzid.
While the government’s initial reaction was to put the blame on the truck driver, civil society activists were quick to point out that there was a pattern to these kinds of accidents and that the individual responsibility of one truck driver could not sufficiently explain the phenomenon. The Tunisia Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) released a statement on Saturday claiming that similar accidents have claimed the lives of over 40 women and wounded 492 female workers over the last four years.
But you don’t have to dig too far into the past to find news of such disasters. Civil society activist Chaima Bouhlel created a Google document and a map of Tunisia on Saturday that compiled three other accidents involving women agricultural workers packed onto trucks that had resulted in deaths or injuries within the previous 16 days.
The FTDES statement also called Saturday’s event a “crime” that was the “result of inhuman transportation conditions under the watch and known to all the authorities, headed by the prime minister,” calling on the Prime Minister, the Minister of Interior, the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Transport to be held accountable for “exposing the lives of female agricultural workers to danger daily.”
The FTDES is currently conducting field work to document the conditions of female agricultural workers, whose pay and conditions are often worse than those of men. Saoussan Jaadi, a researcher for FTDES based in its Kairouan office, recently told Meshkal on the sidelines of a conference on women’s rights held on April 19, 2019, that truck drivers are paid by the number of people they carry, incentivizing them to overcrowd the number of agricultural workers they transport.
However, Jelalia reports that all the families of victims she spoke to in Blahdia on Sunday did not put blame on the truck driver, telling her the driver, who also lost his life along with that of his sister whom he was transporting on Saturday, was forced to overcrowd his truck in order to earn enough money to pay the bribes of up to 100 dinars he is regularly coerced into paying security officials posted along the route.
Jaadi of FTDES said that the women agricultural workers they have documented were being paid between 12 and 14 dinars a day while men were being paid 18 to 20 dinars a day for the same job and in the same conditions. Jaadi explained that when she and colleagues suggested to the women they should be paid more, women provided a set of justifications for their lower pay: the farmers themselves were going through hard times with which the female laborers sympathized; their male colleagues do more heavy-lifting physical labor (though not the smaller but also strenuous hand and forearm work that women usually do such as picking through olive branches), and those that have husbands often benefit indirectly from their husbands’ social or health coverage and hence they don’t demand that their employers provide benefits.
A prominent nongovernmental association Aswat Nissa [Women’s Voices] also released a press statement on Saturday in the wake of the Sidi Bouzid accident in which it said it “deplores the carelessness of the government that is primarily responsible for this tragedy and deplores the evasion of responsibility by the Minister of Women,” calling on the minister to apologize to the families.
Sarra Ben Said, the executive director of Aswat Nissa, said there is a draft law that had been proposed for the state to institute a special category of transportation for agricultural workers, but she told Meshkal by email that “unfortunately there isn’t a reallpolitical will to make these amendments a priority on the parliament’s agenda.”
But legislation proposed to get the state more involved in the transportation of agricultural workers may end up only further subsidizing the private sector employers whose quest for higher profit margins are forcing down costs and increasing the flexibility of the workforce, economic conditions in the context of a seasonal activity sector, according to Nada Trigui, who conducts research on the political economy of Tunisian agriculture.
“For investors, this mechanism of externalizing the service of labor provision allows them a certain flexibility of labor in terms of defining labor price and working conditions. It also allows them the power to ask intermediaries to change teams when there are requests for higher pay or better working conditions,” Trigui told Meshkal.
“After the catastrophe happened, we see all people pointing fingers, so some people point fingers towards the driver, the community says the driver is one of us and it’s the cops who require bribes that are the problem. Other people are saying that the state is the problem because it didn’t take in hand this issue of providing safe transport to these people. Of course the state is to blame for the precarious infrastructure and absence of public transportation. But is it only the responsibility of the state? Is it not a shared responsibility with the landowners? Nobody points fingers at ’employers’, be they landowners, agricultural investors, or middlemen. If they want to have people to work on their lands, should they not be responsible for providing a decent pay and a safer work environment for the labor? This is the missing part, holding the investors responsible as well.”
In the days following the incident, numerous demonstrations were reported to have taken place in Sidi Bouzid and in the capital Tunis with many blaming the government for not giving the issue enough importance. On Monday, photos shared on social media allegedly of the Sidi Bouzid demonstrations saw some women wearing or waving the traditional flower-patterned scarves that many female farm workers wear while making specific social and economic demands from authorities. Photos of one demonstration in Sidi Bouzid, shared by the Facebook group claiming to be an association called “Victory for Rural Women” included demonstrators holding signs calling for safe transportation, social welfare coverage, clean drinking water, and development.
Another Facebook group claiming to represent an association called “To Oppose Violence Against Women” shared photos of what appeared to be a small demonstration in the Kasba area near the Prime Ministry in Tunis. The same group called for a protest on Tuesday, April 30 in front of the Ministry of Women, Families, Children and the Elderly. Other groups have called for protests on Wednesday, May 1, on International Workers’ Day.
One former government official, Faten Kallel the former state secretary for youth and sports, sparked outrage on social media when she posted an update on her personal Facebook page after the accident on Saturday. Kallel’s post read:
“What’s never said is that the survival of the already stricken agricultural sector depends on these women, and this primitive mode of transportation is profitable in terms of costs, and banning it will end up depriving the sector of the workforce and the state doesn’t have the means of developing public transportation infrastructure.”
Commenting on the post on Twitter, Selim Kharrat, a civil society activist, asked the former official “What is more valuable in your eyes, the life of your fellow citizens or the availability of a low-cost work force?”
Kallel later replied to criticism that she had used inflammatory language by writing on her Twitter account that Tunisia “needs to be shocked” and that “People hate me? Big deal.”
In the meanwhile, some artists took to social media to express their sorrow at the tragedy and what they see as the social injustice the deaths represent.
Yosser Halloul, in a sketch she made of the women (the main photo of this article, above), dedicated her sketch in a Facebook post writing: “To these modern-day warriors…to these women workers who we enslave in the name of capitalism…to these fighters we treat as second class citizens…we ask your forgiveness…forgiveness for having seen your daily exploitation without doing anything to help you.”