Tunisian PM blames repeated strikes for economic doldrums

TUNIS — Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi on Wednesday painted a bleak picture of the national economy, which he blamed on repeated strikes that have paralysed several companies.

“The economic situation is very bad. Repeated sit-ins and strikes have stopped operations at several firms,” he told a panel tasked with paving the way for political reforms ahead of the election of a constituent assembly in October.

He cited the case of a chemical complex in the southeastern town of Gabes where activity was disrupted for weeks due to industrial action.

“Every day of stoppage amounts to a loss of three billion dinars (1.4 billion euros or 2.1 billion dollars), he added.

The Gabes complex for its part estimates total loss for the group (which includes the Gafsa phosphate company) to 3.5 billion dollars a day.

Since the ouster of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, activity at the complex has slowed down due to the suspension of phosphate deliveries, said Habib Louhichi, an official of the Tunisian labour federation in the southwestern town of Gafsa.

Essebsi also singled out “the impact on the economy” of output stoppages at the Enfidha cement factory located 100 kilometers (60 miles) and at the British Gas, which produces 66 percent of Tunisian gas.

After experiencing negative growth during two consecutive quarters this year, the Tunisian economy moved into recession, the Tunisian Central Bank said last week.

Tunisia, used to posting at least five percent annual growth, faces stagnation this year as the authorities try to meet rising aspirations, hold elections and limit the fallout from unrest in neighbour Libya.

Unemployment, which ultimately drove the unrest against the old regime, could reach 20 percent of the workforce this year, up from 13 percent in 2010, the government admits.

Foreign investors are skittish. Direct foreign investment, a key driver for job growth, crashed 25 percent over the first four months of the year compared to the same period in 2010, according to the Tunisian foreign investment agency.

The longer the uncertainty remains, the slower the return of tourists, who supported some 400,000 jobs in a sector accounting for nearly seven percent of gross domestic product.

With official numbers forecasting a 41 percent drop in tourists and a 48 percent drop in revenues, the 2011 tourist season is expected to be sluggish, despite advertising campaigns celebrating a “new Tunisia”.

Last month, Essebsi said it was “urgent to definitively break with all forms of strikes and protests” ahead of the October 23 elections.

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