Women Agricultural Workers in Tunisia are at the Middleman’s Mercy

2022-12-01    |   

Women Agricultural Workers in Tunisia are at the Middleman’s Mercy

On 19 October 2022, Tunisia’s government issued order no. 768, which slightly raised the minimum daily wage “guaranteed” to women working in agriculture from TND16 [USD5] in 2021 to TND17.7 [USD5.5].


This improvement, which came on the heels of International Day of Rural Women, is commendable in principle. However, the monthly equivalent income is no higher than TND400 [USD125], and in practice, its application is obstructed by the absence of mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement. In response to the lethal tragedies among women agricultural workers and their deteriorating socioeconomic situation, the Tunisian legislator has consistently addressed the phenomenon via rudimentary legislative solutions. These solutions do not consider the needs and perceptions of the women themselves or the constraints of reality, so they always end up impossible to implement.


Intuitively, a discussion about women agricultural workers would rely on an official figure of their number. Yet the Tunisian state’s statistics omit this figure under various pretexts, namely that the seasonality of their activity prevents the state from determining it. Nevertheless, unofficial figures estimate that there are more than half a million Tunisian women working in agriculture outside the state’s purview even though they guarantee Tunisians’ daily bread supply.


The popular imagination conceives of the female agricultural worker as a 40 or 50-year-old woman wearing a brightly colored foulara,[1] burnt by the summer sun, and bitten by the winter cold. We know her circumstances are harsh, and we do not always grasp her demands. Now and again, we are saddened to hear of her death in a transport accident and then promptly continue going about our lives. So, who are these women?


The Women Speak: “Tell Them to Acknowledge Us”


“I swear, we’re tired… Tell them to acknowledge us”, says Samah, a young woman fond of agriculture, as she concludes her discussion of her situation and that of hundreds of thousands of women working in the sector. We have used a pseudonym not because she is scared to reveal her identity (quite the opposite) but because we worry that her barefaced activism could deprive her of her right to work. That is what happened to her colleague Noura when the middleman realized she had “offended” against him by taking to the street to demand her fundamental rights: social coverage, safe transport, and fair wages, or – put simply – her right to human dignity.


The circumstances of women agricultural workers are well known to be inhumane. With tears, Noura explains, “We are contacted only by the middleman. There’s no interaction whatsoever with the farmer whose land we will work. In the morning, the middleman picks us up in his truck. There are more than thirty of us, so we pack together and stand in the bed of the truck for 30 kilometers until we reach the field”. She digresses to emphasis, “With this talk, I’m not seeking anyone’s charity or sympathy. I’m just answering a question you asked!” She continues, “The women among us are aged from 12 to 70. Some of us left school and began working. Others – like me – knew nothing about agricultural work, but need and hardship pushed us into it. Most of us are women. Men don’t want to work in this area as they understand that the work is exhausting and the remuneration – even if it has risen – is meager. I don’t blame them, but I don’t have a choice, especially with six mouths at home waiting to be fed. It’s a path I take even if I don’t know whether I will make it home in the evening”.


Samah’s focus is on the role of the middleman in the injustice against women agricultural workers. Every day, the middleman transports dozens of women – sometimes more than 60 – in one vehicle to the fields. She says, “There are 60-year-old sick women who can’t stand for long periods. To stop them from sitting and gain a few centimeters to squeeze in more women, the middleman pours cold water into the back of the truck”. Samah confirms that they have no relationship with the farmer. The middleman determines his and the women’s wages with the farmer. If their wage is theoretically TND20 [USD6.2], then at best they receive TND15 [USD4.7] after the middleman’s “commission”.


Samah also speaks about a colleague who fell ill with kidney disease. The farmer ignored her cries of pain and ordered her to keep working until the middleman returned at 2:00pm. The same goes for another colleague who was bitten by a snake while working in a cold storage facility. Instead of helping her, the farmer responded that treating her injury was none of his business.


Samah summarizes her relationship with the middleman: “The middleman exploits the farmer, the farmer exploits us, and then comes the middleman’s turn to exploit us”. It is a chain of exploitation, and the workers are its weakest link despite subsisting off it.


Noura does not neglect to mention the issue of harassment and rape in the agricultural milieu: “There are numerous wrongs and tragedies that young girls, in particular, suffer at the hands of some farmers. A 70-year-old farmer raped a 14-year-old girl. To cover it up, they married her off to another 60-year-old man. Between the sun, the bent back, the cold, and the hardship, what life did this young girl live?”


Fair Wages, Social Coverage, and Safe Transport


Noura insists on reminding me that she is speaking not to solicit sympathy or beg but to make the voices of women laborers heard. She says, “Many people came by before you, and we don’t know whether our voice was actually heard. But we try to deliver our voice by various means”. She jokingly admonishes me: “We see you sympathize with us by wearing the embroidered foulara on TV, but by doing so, you drive its price up”. Returning to a serious tone, she says, “Our dignity has been taken from us. Whenever we enter the field, we hear all kinds of names from the farmer”. “We’re not asking for anything but our rights,” adds Samah.


Noura and Samah both express their demands clearly. They are seeking improved wages, decent transport, and social coverage to prevent difficult social situations after accidents in the fields or trucks. Even though the demands are clear and fundamental, the ruling authority receives them with indifference and an alarming incapacity to satisfy them. Samah says that the problem of unsafe transport could be solved by allocating buses to women in agricultural areas. She also recommends that the specific nature of agricultural work be taken into account and that the social coverage system be adapted to their needs. Preliminary solutions could have been studied, but Samah says that her attempts to meet the governor over six consecutive years have been futile. Hence, Noura’s hopes remain limited to “a decent life in exchange for every drop of blood and sweat” from her colleagues.


The State’s Shameless Handling of The Workers’ Demands


Despite the clarity of the demands, the state’s policy on them is limited to a few flimsy measures that do not spare women agricultural workers from hunger. The state’s “response” to the demand for fair wages is merely to slightly raise the minimum guaranteed wage each year for each actual workday. This raise barely covers the inflation that the country witnessed over the last year and definitely does not cover their expenses. Moreover, the state ignores its complete inability to enforce this wage. Between the middleman and farmer’s exploitation of the absence of means of oversight and the workers’ pressing need to go to the fields, the state and its guaranteed minimum wage remain on paper and totally divorced from the reality of women agricultural workers and their right to fair wages.


The same hesitancy and ignorance of these women’s reality appears in the state’s handling of the demand for safe transport. Under widespread social pressure following the Cebbala tragedy, which killed 12 workers and injured 20, Parliament enacted Law no. 51 of 2019 on Creating a Class of Transport Specific to Agricultural Sector Workers. This reaction only occurred because fingers were pointed at the state, particularly the Ministry of Women, the Ministry of Transport, and the Ministry of Social Affairs, which had been stalling since civil society presented a bill to amend articles 21 and 23 of the Land Transport Law in 2016.


Despite this law’s enactment, the safe transport demand was not achieved because of the state’s incapacity and the occasional collusion of its personnel overseeing the means of transport used by women agricultural workers, as well as the state’s problematic approach to this issue. Haya al-Attar, who is in charge of women agricultural workers’ issues in the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), says that the law failed for two main reasons. Firstly, the state enacted the law, which sets the minimum conditions that rural transport must meet, without taking a social approach. Although the women’s relationship with the middleman is characterized partially by exploitation, it is also based largely on personal or familial acquaintance: “Women in rural areas don’t ride in trucks of men they don’t know”. The state ignores the “structure of the employment relationship” between the women, the middlemen, and the farmers, and merely criminalizes the middleman, who – despite his faults – is a key driver of the employment process in the absence of effective means of oversight. This has now led to the codification of extortion by a fourth element, namely the police, of the middleman and, through him, the farmer and worker. From another angle, al-Attar says that because the state demands that the middleman meet certain specifications dictated from above without providing facilities for safer transport, its standards are mere ink on paper. This is especially true because of consecutive governments’ failure to issue the governmental order on the conditions for accessing non-public irregular transport allocated to agricultural workers.


Between the stopgap legislative approach and the seasonal speeches following every tragedy among women agricultural workers, women continue to fall victim to transport accidents, which have risen significantly since 2020. According to FTDES figures, transport accidents have killed 50 workers and wounded 710 others since 2020.


Just like the demands for decent wages and safe transport, the state meets the demand for social coverage with an ad hoc policy. The social coverage system is based on the initiative of the employer – i.e. the farmer in this case – to register the workers. This system clashes with the reality that most women agricultural workers do not work permanently for the same farmer. Rather, the middleman selects them and divides them among the fields in a manner that makes it impossible to ensure continuous work for the same employer. Farmers exploit this practice to shirk the duty of registration. From another angle, National Social Security Fund (CNSS) inspectors usually examine cases of agricultural work without social coverage based solely on complaints filed by the women workers. Not all these women know about their right to social coverage, and those that do are deterred from reporting by their fear of losing their source of livelihood.


From another angle, the law allows workers to enroll themselves in the social coverage system by paying a quarterly contribution of TND62 [USD19]. This may not seem high,  but given their limited and unstable incomes, this sum obstructs their access to coverage. To overcome these faults, some alternative efforts have arisen, such as the Ahmini [Protect Me] system for women workers’ social coverage, which allows women agricultural workers to pay their CNSS contributions by phone. This idea, for which developer Meher Khelifi won awards around the world, was used to polish the image of Youssef Chahed’s government at the time and has found no support from the current authority. Consequently, 2,600 women who registered in the system are now indebted to the CNSS because the system’s shutdown has prevented them from paying their contributions.


The situation is no different when it comes to the legislations and agreements made in this area, such as Government Order no. 379 of 2019 on the Means of Applying Law no. 32 of 2002 on the Social Security System for Certain Categories of Agricultural Workers. The same goes for the framework agreement signed in October 2018 between the Ministry of Women, Ministry of Agriculture, and Ministry of Social Affairs. The agreement aimed to establish special mechanisms enabling women working in the rural milieu and agricultural sector in particular to access social coverage but did not achieve its intended goals.[2]


In reality, the state mechanisms in this area clash with two issues. The first is the lack of human and logistical resources (if the political will is present) to identify the people entitled to the assistance. The second is the legal procedures’ detachment from the reality of women agricultural workers, who struggle to navigate the multiplicity of state programs with sometimes adverse requirements. Al-Attar adds that because of the multitude of parties involved in improving women agricultural workers’ situation – the Ministry of Women, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Equipment in relation to transport – without a clear vision and policy for addressing the crisis, the programs are manifold and lack a unified logic to guide them. Consequently, each public party can easily shake off responsibility.


“The marginalization of the agricultural sector has led to the marginalization of its weakest link, namely women agricultural workers,” says al-Attar, summarizing the situation of these women. She stresses that, “The state has no clear policy in the agricultural sector”.


What Is the State, Noura?


Regarding the state’s interaction with them, Noura says that, “The state doesn’t deal with us… I have seen ‘the state’ twice in my sixty years. The first time was when a woman working in the Electoral Sub-Commission handed me some pens for my children. The second was two envelopes calling my two sons up to the national army”. She adds, “When President Saied – a man of the law – was elected, we thought that our rights would no longer be trampled. And when we saw three or four women in the government, we cried with joy that women’s rule would ensure the rights of women, especially us”.


As for Samah, she hesitates before answering, “The image of the state is unclear in my mind… I have no rights, so what state are you asking about?” Then she corrects herself, saying that the state occasionally takes the form of a police officer who stops the middleman when there are more than sixty women on the back of his truck: “The ‘state’ sometimes stops him and then lets him pass, despite there being laws that I know prohibit that, after collecting twenty dinars and ‘strictly’ reminding him to pass by and pay again with the next batch”.


The manifestations of the state in the countrywomen’s imagination and their awareness of its absence on the regional level prompted them to “celebrate” their day this year from the heart of the capital, specifically in front of the Municipal Theatre on 3 October 2022. Seldom are women agricultural workers seen there, for however high the voices of their protests rose, they never reached the center of political authority. This event marked a significant change in the methods of struggle in terms of both the choice of location and the structure of the political discourse.


Acknowledge Us: A Crystalizing Discourse and Developing Struggle


“The farmer employs us for 20 dinars so that he doesn’t have to employ a man for 40 or 50… We demanded our right to social coverage and wages… Our wage is meager… There are no rights… The farmer doesn’t care about a woman who falls and breaks because he just replaces her… We’re demanding our rights, nothing more… We’re in Tunisia… We are Tunisia’s daughters… Where is our right?… If we stopped working, Tunisia would have no bread to eat… Acknowledge us.”


That is how one protester summarized decades of women’s struggle stained with the blood of women agricultural workers. The protesters appeared angry and demanded clear rights, namely social security, decent wages, health coverage, and safe transport. They expressed these rights with a single slogan – “Acknowledge us” – in a direct reference to the state and its decades-long policies marginalizing the beating heart of Tunisian agriculture: women.


The protesters stress that they came to the capital not to make a show but to deliver their voice to the center. Facing the state’s total disregard of their local actions over the years, women agricultural workers in Jebiniana – a town in Sfax Governorate – took the initiative to join forces with their colleagues in Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan, and other regions, and protest in Revolution Avenue. The state did not merely ignore this women’s movement but applied a repressive “solution”. The women were gathered into a bus escorted by police, and the driver was advised not to stop until they arrived in Jebiniana.


One protester described her experience as follows: “I came to Tunis with my infant and left him with a relative. When I was forced to get on the bus, I threatened to throw myself off so that I could take my son with me. At that point, the driver stopped under a torrent of curses from a police officer. After many attempts, the officer let me go with some of my colleagues to collect my son”.


This movement represented a shift in the struggle of women agricultural workers. Via this action, they resorted to the capital as a sequel to a march that the women of Jebiniana had led on 13 October 2021 to demand the same rights following years of demands on the local level that had been ignored. These workers’ struggle for their fundamental rights is not limited to protests. Rather, it is also materializing in the organization of basic unions under the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), such as the unions of Jebiniana, Sidi Bouzid, Beja, and Siliana. The workers believe that organizing could aid them in their demands and that social negotiation could achieve their socioeconomic demands.


Regarding the next steps in the struggle, some of the workers allude to the possibility of holding a general strike throughout the republic in the hope of waking the state to their legitimate demands and waking society to their key role in delivering food to Tunisians’ tables. These goals seem realistic and reasonable, but their achievement remains contingent on sufficient engagement and support from the union center and on the ruling authority, especially Kais Saied, abiding by its pledges to women laborers.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

[1] A foulara is a brightly colored headscarf worn by rural women that has become a symbol worn by many women at protests as an act of solidarity with working rural women.

[2] See the FTDES statement “al-Hukuma Amama Taharruk ‘Amilat al-Qita’ al-Filahiyy: Nadaytu wa-Law Asma’tu Hayyan wa-Lakn La Haya li-Man Tunadi”.

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