Working While Black in Tunisia: An Uphill Struggle

Hundreds marching several kilometers down the main Marsa-Tunis highway on December 24, 2018, blocking lanes of traffic to protest widespread racism after Ivorian Falikou Koulibaly was killed the night before in a stabbing. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

In March 2017, Georges, a young graduate from Côte d’Ivoire, came to Tunis for an internship as a business developer. His job was to negotiate partnerships with West African companies, and his employer had promised to help him get a residence permit to ensure he could work and live in Tunisia legally. Just over one year later, Georges left Tunisia, with a 500 dinar (about $200 then, or a whole month’s average salary) fine at the airport for overstaying.

“I was frustrated and disappointed,” said Georges, who believes the way employers, colleagues, and officials treated him is linked to racism and discrimination against people from Sub-Saharan African countries. “If I am black but I have a European or US passport, then they will respect me. If I’m black and from Cote D’Ivoire, then I’m shit. They are racists but they don’t want to confess they are racists.”

It is particularly difficult for workers coming from sub-Saharan Africa to get a residence permit, according to Romdhane Ben Amor, from the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES by its French acronym), which campaigns for migrants rights.

The Association of Tunisian Women for Development Research (AFTURD by its French acronym) is one NGO that works with migrant women. Najet Araari, AFTURD’s executive director, told Meshkal that “there’s a gap in the law around the question of migration. The government doesn’t want to recognize that we are a country of transit as well as a country receiving [migrants]. Because they don’t recognize this, they don’t protect the rights of this population.”

Before arriving in Tunisia, Georges’ employer in Tunis had promised they would support his application for a residence permit. However, his employer never followed through, according to Georges, leaving him without an official legal status in Tunisia.

“I was left with no papers. When I was leaving Tunisia, I had to pay,” explained Georges.

Araari argues that this phenomenon is not only hurting people who come to Tunisia to work, but it also negatively affects the Tunisian state. She sees the forces perpetuating the large informal sector as contributing to a loss of tax revenue and other social problems.

“To work in the informal sector [dans le noir] is a crime, and you’re creating an illegal situation. If you have all of this marginality, as a state you pay for it. You create social problems, because you push people to criminality,” Araari said.

Many non Tunisian workers “cannot complain against their employers. They are paid less, they don’t pay tax. Often they might live in the restaurant because they don’t have a residence permit. They don’t have the right to rent a house,” Araari added.

Ben Amor of FTDES also confirmed that Sub Saharan migrants are paid less than their Tunisian counterparts, noting that it is very difficult for them to get an official work contract.

Union support?

On 13 February 2019, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), announced that they were opening centers to support migrant workers. A press release on the UGTT’s website, explained that the centers would be in Tunis, Sfax, Sousse, and Medenine “in order to monitor and intervene in violations and to provide assistance.”

“The Tunisian General Labor Union, just as it is keen to defend the rights of Tunisians residing abroad, is equally eager and determined to defend the rights of migrant workers residing in Tunisia, whether they are in a regular or irregular situation, by creating central communication points to guarantee guidance and legal assistance,” the press release said.

Ben Amor, however, believes that the centers are only able to support documented migrants, and since so few migrants are documented, the UGTT can offer little help.

The UGTT rarely responds to press requests for comment or interviews, and did not respond to several attempts by Meshkal to obtain basic details on the centers, whether they are operational, and where they are located.

For Georges, racism was not just about the way his employer or the Tunisian state treated him. He also endured racism from coworkers.

“I was the only black guy and the only foreigner. They used to say bullshit about you in Arabic. They made jokes about me, about my country, about my color,” he told Meshkal.

When he complained about his treatment to AIESEC, the organization who had coordinated the internship, Georges said they told him: “This is a nice country; people don’t behave like this.” Georges’ manager similarly dismissed him.

“He said I was frustrated for nothing,” explained Georges.

According to Ben Amor, there are some sectors in which workers from other African countries are particularly vulnerable. These include the agricultural sector and female domestic workers, who are “out of sight.”

Domestic workers are often recruited by informal networks and promised good salaries, according to Ben Amor.

“When they arrive here, they are confronted by reality. They’re paid two or three times less than Tunisians,” Ben Amor said. “There are underage girls, those who work all day without a clear schedule. There are women who work the weekend, without any sort of protection against accidents, and assaults in the house.”

A staff member at Maison des Droits et Migrations, the headquarters of the Tunisian branch of French NGO Terre d’Asile, explained that these women’s cases almost always fulfil the requirements for being classified as trafficking.

Araari, who has worked with migrant women experiencing difficult circumstances, recounted to Meshkal the story of one 20-year-old woman.

“She didn’t have somewhere to live. She was invited to live with 9 guys. She was the object of trafficking,” Araari said. “She couldn’t find a job. In return for staying in the house she began to fulfil sexual favors. She did housework too, and the guys started to invite clients. She became a sexual slave.”

For many migrants, Ben Amor explains, there are also issues within Tunisian public life.

Some migrants are assaulted [in the streets] and don’t report it to the police because they will be questioned” and their work and visa status is ambiguous.

“The first thing that the police ask for is their papers, and if the victim doesn’t have the papers, the police will start to look into this,” Ben Amor said. “Sometimes the police will say: ‘No, there aren’t racist violations in Tunisia,’ or ‘This aggression wasn’t racist.’”

Georges felt that he was treated differently by the police because of the color of his skin.

“Policemen talk to you in a very bad way if you’re black. If you’re white they treat you nicely you pay the fees, you try to behave normally, they treat you as you’re shit,” Georges explained. “I told one of them you don’t have to talk to me like that; he said ‘What will you do if I talk to you like that?’”

Georges recounted an incident in which he was walking in downtown Tunis with an Armenian friend. The police asked to see Georges’ passport, but they didn’t ask his friend for hers. Georges was taken to the police station and had to call the organization AIESEC, who had supported Georges coming to Tunisia. Georges thinks that “maybe they thought I was somehow a danger to her.”

“She said we lived in the same apartment. They couldn’t believe it,” Georges said.

Georges also felt targeted for his color by ordinary people on the street, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

“If you’re black and passing by they try and attack you, take your phone. If you’re a girl, they try to beat you just for fun. This used to happen, especially to girls. If you’re a girl, late at night, they can attack you.”

On the night of the 23 December 2018, Falikou Koulibaly, the president of the Association of Ivorians in Tunisia was killed when he was stabbed by a mugger. The attack sparked outrage and protests among people from sub-saharan African countries living in Tunisia who feel regularly targeted by violent attacks. The day after the attack, several hundred protestors marched down the main Marsa-Tunis highway, blocking several lanes of traffic as they walked several kilometers to the Ivorian embassy in Menzah (see main photo above). There was also a protest downtown at the same time, and protestors chanted “Tunisians are racist.”

Georges told Meshkal  that members of the Sub-Saharan community in Tunis “were so pissed off. There are many associations for black people. They met ministers many times, they were promised many things. But they [the ministers] don’t  want to change anything. They don’t think black people deserve it. They try to show the world they’re working on it, but they’re not.”

Georges explains that there was some reaction after that, but it didn’t last long.

“When something really bad happens they [members of parliament] speak, but after you don’t hear anything,” he said.

FTDES organized an demonstration in May 2018,  calling for the rights of migrant workers to be respected. According to Ben Amor, the demonstration brought together “many actors from civil society, and migrants: students, workers, those with papers, those without.”

They held another one in May 2019 and plan to hold it annually. Those demonstrations pushed the government to make some changes, Ben Amor said.

According to Ben Amor, after the 2018 protests “the interior ministry offered to waive the penalties students incurred from overstaying in Tunisia.”

Meshkal was unable to verify whether a waiver had been offered or implemented.

“We continue to ask for a mass waiver for migrants in Tunisia, to change residency laws,” Ben Amor said.