Tunisia phosphate production grinds to halt over protests

GAFSA, Tunisia — Tunisian phosphate production, already sharply lower since last year’s revolution, has nearly ground to a halt over labour unrest, according to sources at state-owned Compagnie de Phosphates de Gafsa and the TAP news agency. TAP said annual output before the January 2011 ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was around 6.7 million tonnes, but that had fallen to just 2.2 million in the January-October 2012 period.

And in the past three weeks it has nearly stopped altogether, said a source at CPG, which is a unit of Groupe Chimique Tunisien. No one at GCT could be reached on Friday for comment. According to the source, cited by TAP, the company had been operating at only 30 percent of capacity when the labour disputes began last month. Production at Metlaoui, Oum Larayes and Redayef has halted completely, as protesters have blocked the wells from which water is taken to wash the phosphates. “Residents of the Berka district have cut off the water used in Metlaoui, Oum Larayes and Redayef, causing the total paralysis of phosphate transport,” said CPG foreman Houcine Mel. “Day labourers have also seized equipment, including trucks and excavators, in Metlaoui and Oum Larayes to demand that they be taken on,” he added. Truck drivers are also on strike in Metlaoui, demanding to be integrated into CPG’s staff and to be paid more.

And at Mdhilla, work has been paralysed by day workers and sub-contractors, who also want to become staffers and be paid more. “For the past week, production at the phosphate mines and the principal washing plant at Mdhilla has been stopped by a workers’ sit-in,” said CPG engineer Msadek Ouanes. The leftist Popular Front has called a demonstration in Gafsa on Saturday to demand that the local governor resign and that part of the revenues from phosphate production be returned to the region. CPG is the top employer in the central province of Gafsa, which suffers from high unemployment. The industry is crucial to the the economy of Tunisia, which was the world’s fifth-largest exporter until the revolution.

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