Tunisian garment workers fight for unpaid wages in pandemic’s shadow

LAYLI FOROUDI

RACKING up debts and running out of options, Tunisian seamstress Najeh is pinning her hopes on her employer’s promise to pay four months of overdue wages in August.

The 44-year-old, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals, is the main breadwinner in her household and has been commuting every day to her garment factory job of 22 years despite receiving no wages since March.

Tunisian garment factories, which mainly supply European fashion brands, have been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic – with thousands of job losses and a rise in complaints about labour rights violations in the sector, union leaders said.

“How is there no money? We are working. The exports are going out as they always do,” Najeh, who sews cuffs onto shirts at the Fada factory in the northeastern town of Menzel Temime, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during her lunch break.

Exports have recovered from a drop in shipments to key European markets, but some 4,500 textile and garment workers lost their jobs in the year ending February 2021, according to the Tunisian Federation for Textiles and Garments (FTTH).

Others, like Najeh, have gone months without pay during the pandemic.

Despite the Fada factory owner’s pledge to pay overdue salaries next month, Najeh said she did not feel reassured about receiving the money she is owed from her monthly wage of 530 Tunisian dinars ($192), and worries about the plant’s future.

Fada’s lawyer declined to comment.

Najeh said the factory makes shirts for Italian brands including the Renato Balestra group, Lancetti and Il Granchio – none of which immediately replied to a request for comment.

In the meantime, Najeh is juggling debts to her local shop, her son’s tutor and the bus driver who takes her to work each day.

Three other Fada workers said they had been evicted from their homes, unable to pay the rent, because of the wage freeze.


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