Tunisian women’s suffering is not limited to verbal and physical violence, harassment, and bullying. It also includes economic violence practiced against women seeking employment and those working in industrial production units, who represent the most vulnerable and disadvantaged segment of the active workforce. The exclusion and injustice extend across both urban and rural settings. Between the oppression in textile factories, arbitrary dismissals, and the denial of employment to rural women with low education or advanced age on the pretext of limited competence or productive capacity, a collective tragedy emerges from an economic system that prioritizes profit and productivity over people.
The following article explores one of two experiments presented by the Legal Agenda in which Tunisian civil society organizations utilize the philosophy and features of social solidarity economy (SSE) to reintegrate victims of economic violence into the production cycle. These organizations create solidaric alternatives that extricate the women from marginalization, empower them to overcome economic exclusion, and bring them their rightful economic gain, far removed from the logic of aid and charity.
The Hands in Solidarity Cooperative:
A Lifesaver for Women Victims of Economic Violence in the Textile Sector
Female textile and garment workers, who constitute 86% of the workers in the sector, endure many violations stemming from the precarious employment model that the current development paradigm has imposed. Under the cover of so-called employment flexibility, the economic violence inflicted on this group takes two overarching forms.
The first form consists of the violations of economic and social rights that occur during the worker’s career, estimated to last approximately 20 years. These violations include work conditions and labor relations that clearly breach the Labor Code and the Collective Agreement of the Textile and Garment Sector, as shown in a study published by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) in 2014. The study encompassed 28 industrial establishments specialized in sewing garments for export and distributed across most delegates of Monastir Governorate, and included 260 women working in the textile sector, primarily sewing. It found that more than 42% are the sole breadwinners of their families, which on average consist of more than five people. The low income in this sector – the average wage is approximately TND300 [USD111] per month – exacerbates their distress. Moreover, 26% of the workers are deprived of health coverage because employers do not register them for social security, which is a clear violation of the law. In many instances, the workers were surprised to discover, usually after their employment had ended, that they are not part of the social security system. Most textile workers in the region belong to the poor and middle classes and suffer from poor health, nutrition, and living conditions, which affect their output at work.
The second form is the socioeconomic exclusion that workers older than 40 are subjected to on pretexts such as diminished output and competitiveness, their health condition, and economic difficulties. Usually, the employers get rid of these women in two ways.
The first is to refrain from renewing their fixed-term contracts. Approximately three quarters of women in this sector work under such contracts. After many years of work, they are quietly dismissed with no right to compensation. The doors of the factories are then closed to them on the grounds of their age and poor health.
The second concerns workers with permanent contracts, who constitute approximately one quarter of the women working in this sector. Employers get rid of such workers by suddenly closing the factories and via arbitrary dismissals. Although the workers resort to the courts to secure their legitimate rights stipulated in the Labor Code, after a long and complicated judicial process they only obtain their owed wages, usually from the National Social Security Fund after the factory is sold off on the cheap.
Irrespective of how they are dismissed, the end result for most women working in this sector is, after an average of 20 years of work, economic exclusion (the factories usually refuse to employ women older than 40) and social exclusion (they face impoverishment and marginalization and are deprived of health and social coverage). These circumstances push them into social vulnerability.
Precarious Textile-Sector Employment is Central to the FTDES’ Activities
In this context, the Monastir branch of FTDES has, since its establishment in 2012, championed the cause of women working in the textile and garment sector. For example, it has produced studies, research, and documentaries on the violations and employment precarity that they suffer; protected them, guided them, accompanied them in court and before the National Social Security Fund, organized advocacy campaigns (concerning the right to health, violations of economic and social rights, and the sudden closure of establishments), and pressured parties involved in the sector from within and without to improve work conditions and tackle the violations. All this activity helped to reduce the exploitation and achieve the victims’ demands. Gradually, the FTDES’ Monastir branch became an authority in this realm and a hub for researchers, activists, trainees, and officials for negotiations and insight from its experience. The FTDES has also strived to train women, particularly those suffering from occupational illnesses, in other areas to help reintegrate them into the economic cycle. Via its training courses in crafts, the women obtained a vocational qualification and craftsman certificate, which enabled them to receive financing from the Solidarity Bank and open their own businesses. It has also held exhibitions to market their products. Within this approach, the FTDES introduced the victims of arbitrary dismissal to SSE and encouraged them to become involved by establishing projects that value the experience they accumulated in factories.
From Protesting and Advocacy to Proposing Alternatives and Solutions
To move beyond the logic of aid and toward providing solutions, the FTDES proposed establishing an industrial textile cooperative for laid-off women as a practical solution to the vulnerable situation in which they have been forced to live. This move coincided with the Tunisian General Labour Union’s proposal of the SSE law, which allocates a percentage of public procurements to SSE enterprises and therefore constitutes a real opportunity to support SSE projects.
After a phase consisting of training, coordination, and screening via precise criteria that take into account need and merit (such as age, social situation, specialization, and experience), fifty people, more than 90% of them women aged from 40 to 55, were assembled. Most of these women were living in the urban areas of towns and cities in the delegates of Ksar Hellal, Sayada, and Qusaybat al-Madyun in Monastir Governorate. On 25 January 2020, the cooperative’s general constituent assembly was held, an agreement to name it “Hands in Solidarity” [Les Mains Solidaires] was reached, its statute was approved, and its board was elected from among the women involved. After lengthy administrative procedures and many difficulties stemming from the lack of laws governing cooperatives in the industrial realm, the insufficient training of local and regional administrations, and their ignorance of industrial cooperatives (FTDES had to go to the ministries to complete the legal procedures), the enterprise was officially registered on 6 March 2020 and thereby became a legal establishment.
The cooperative is situated at the end of the production chain for cleaning-related textiles, such as wipes, napkins, and handkerchiefs. From the outset, the women involved chose a flexible production system to accommodate their family and health status, whereby they carry out some stages of production from home and the cooperative conducts the marketing and provides the raw materials, which are procured from the local market. The spread of COVID-19 in Tunisia in early March 2020 delayed the launch. However, after the lockdown, which lasted approximately three months, the cooperative began purchasing raw materials and equipment. It was slated to begin the first phases of production and marketing in October 2020.
Hence, Hands in Solidarity constitutes a lifesaver for women victims of the economic violence caused by Tunisia’s socioeconomic situation, which is a result of the development paradigm that the state adopted. Its significance lies in its ability to provide an alternative to their previous precarious employment. The project is sustainable and can capitalize on the opportunities available in the region for procuring the raw materials, marketing the products, and integrating into the economic cycle. It is an example confirming that solidarity and partnership among disadvantaged groups are essential for countering policies of marginalization, exclusion, and exploitation and that the opportunities provided by SSE must be seized as part of the solution to unemployment, poverty, and social vulnerability.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
 “Intihakat al-Huquq al-Iqtisadiyya wa-l-Ijtima’iyya li-l-Mar’a al-‘Amila fi Qita’ al-Nasij (Jihat al-Munastir Namudhajan)”, Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Monastir branch, Qusaybat al-Madyun.