‘Made in Tunisia’: the worker-casualties of the globalisation of the textile industry

Besma Marzouk, 38, in front of the disused premises of the B.Co.Tex garment factory on 28 June 2018 in Ksar Hellal, Tunisia. She is holding up a scarecrow dressed in a work tunic with a Tunisian flag draped round its neck. The scarecrow was a symbol of their protest and was placed permanently outside the workshop she and her colleagues occupied. (Sandrine Edmée)

The manager “threw the keys down and left, passport in hand,” says one of the former employees of the small garment factory in Ksar Hellal in the Tunisian Sahel. On 18 January 2018, Besma Marzouk lost her job, along with the other 60 workers at the B.Co.Tex. Factory. In protest, she decided to occupy the factory with a dozen of her colleagues. After seven months of uncomfortable nights on makeshift beds, with no access to running water and electricity, exhaustion and despondency have driven the former workers to abandon their struggle.

Besma has no doubts: “The garment workers are living martyrs.” With her confident voice and direct gaze, this 38-year-old worker does not show her distress. For more than a year, however, she has only been able to buy the drugs she needs to treat her diabetes intermittently. It can be seen on her face, drawn with tiredness and covered in wrinkles, which get a little deeper every day from waiting and from more bad news, which has multiplied over the last two years, as the workforce at B.Co.Tex was reduced by half before it finally closed down.

The crux of the problem goes back to 2005, recalls Antonio Manganella, director of Avocats Sans Frontières (Lawyers without Borders) in Tunisia, the date when the Multi Fibre Arrangement which allowed “the textile producing countries [including Tunisia] to keep a production quota without being exposed to free competition” was abolished.

According to Abdeljelil Bédoui, economist and advisor to the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), unemployed textile workers are “a prime example of the failure of the neoliberal development model followed by Tunisia for more than 40 years”.

The Investment Law, last amended in 2016, embodies the spirit of the ongoing legislative process and the erosion of the status of Tunisian workers it has brought about. By granting a series of tax breaks to new local and foreign businesses for five years, the law made the closure of factories with no notice common practice. After the tax breaks expired, theTunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) estimates that only 50 per cent of clothing companies have remained in business.

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That is what happened at the B.Co.Tex children’s clothing factory. But the closure of businesses without notice is not the only cause of unfair dismissals in the textile industry, which in 2013 employed an 85 per cent female workforce, according to FTDES.

Only 15 per cent of textile workers have a permanent contract. Many of those on a fixed-term contract are laid off or simply not hired because of their age or occupational illness, considered to be damaging to their productivity.

Multinationals, forever in search of lower costs, benefit from a complex outsourcing system. The link between a brand and its producers is difficult to trace, while the “violation of [workers’] rights is directly related to the decisions of the parent company” held by western or Asian interests, insists Manganella. The employees left in the lurch rarely get compensation, like the workers of B.Co.Tex and many of Tunisia’s garment industry workers, at the bottom of the scale in the production chain. “It’s our global economic system, which is based on this form of impunity,” says ASF’s lawyer.

The sacrifices imposed on the workers have served the interests of the multinationals

Without resources or recourse, the former employees of B.Co.Tex are sinking into destitution. One of them, Rebeh Khleïfi, says she cannot repay her loan to the bank, and now she is helplessly awaiting a formal warning. To save money, she now shares a small apartment with a colleague. A native of one of the poorest regions in the interior of the country, her move to the relatively prosperous coastal governorate of Monastir has turned into a nightmare. Far from her family and her sick mother, Rebeh has to navigate the troubled waters of unemployment alone. Precariousness hangs over her, as for all the 157,575 Tunisian women and men employed by the textile industry, like a sword of Damocles.

Next to her, Besma believes her former employer and the state are equally guilty: “And did the Tunisian government think about our rights?” she wonders. Today, with her health steadily declining, the prospective of finding another job is hard to imagine. Half-tearful, half-laughing she takes to task her former French boss from the Kidiliz group, the manager of the workshop where they made clothes for the likes of Levi’s childrenswear, Catimini and Absorba. “I’d like to ask Jean-Philippe [Servanton] something. Would he do this in France?”

Manganella tells Equal Times that “liberalisation has not brought with it rights that balance [respect for workers] and the globalisation of the economy”. He says that “Tunisia opted to cut back on workers’ rights to meet the expectations of investors”.

If he is right, then the sacrifices imposed on Tunisian workers have above all served the interests of the clothing multinationals. “Since then, this Eldorado of textile production has moved on to countries where the neglect of social and environmental standards is even greater” than in Tunisia, he explains, citing Bangladesh and Ethiopia as examples.

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Capital flight is not restricted to Tunisia. The French group Kidiliz, which made a fortune under the former name of Zannier, was bought in October 2018 by the Chinese company Semir. Specialised in children’s clothing, Kidiliz owned, amongst others, the B.Co.Tex workshop, before selling it to a Tunisian shell company. Now grouped together under the same financial entity, Zheijiang Semir Garment, the two groups are ranked second in the world in children’s fashion.

It is a foretaste of the ambitions of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his new silk route, an investment project played out globally since 2013. This is worrying for western companies present in Tunisia, but even more so for the workers whose access to the labour market depends directly on the dynamics of the national and global economy. “France will soon lose its place in Africa,” says Salah, the father of two redundant women textile workers, looking at the remains of a clothing workshop today abandoned to stray dogs and the neighbourhood kids.

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