MIGRANTS IN THE TUNISIAN LABOUR MARKET: REALITY ON THE GROUND
By Simone Trucco (volunteer at the FTDES )
For the International Migrants Day which happens on the 18th of December, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights stresses the importance of changing the legal framework regulating entry and accessibility to the labour market for migrants in Tunisia. Migrants face countless violations of human and labour rights in Tunisia and many of these violations stem from the hurdles that impede migrants from working regularly in the country. Especially those migrants working irregularly may be victims of labour exploitation in view of their increased vulnerability.
Tunisia hosts a very small number of migrants, in comparison with its neighbours Algeria and Libya and the majority of the migrant community resides in urban settings.
Although there is a workforce shortage in some occupational sectors and in some governorates, outdated laws regulating the access of foreigners to the labour market obstacle migrants’ search for legally contracted waged jobs.
The strict national labour code, from articles 258 to 269, applies the principle of ‘national preference’ to the labour market, that is the prioritisation of Tunisian workers over foreigners with the same level of qualification upon recruitment. This complicates the access of low-qualification jobs to foreigners, since it is difficult to claim that there are no Tunisian nationals available and willing to be contracted and work in these low-skill positions.
At the same time, this ‘national preference’ is problematic because there is a workforce shortage in some occupational sectors and in some governorates, where employers tend to employ foreigners, especially Sub-Saharan workers. As a matter of fact, some Tunisians do not want to work anymore in some sectors, because they aspire to get better-paid jobs. For example, there are fewer Tunisians willing to work in construction and food service, and more migrants are replacing them in this sector due to labour scarcity. Therefore, even if there is a market niche occupied by the foreigner workforce, this principle of ‘national preference’ prevents the legal hiring of foreigner workers.
Therefore, migrants’ stay in Tunisia can easily become irregular, hindering their legal access to healthcare, social security, education, legal labour market, and often leading them to live in indecent accommodations. Their increased vulnerability exposes them to exploitation.
In fact, organised criminal networks can profit from this vulnerability. Exploitation can simply start by matching the employers’ search for cheap workforce and the need of migrants to eke out a living or it can be premeditated. In the second scenario, intermediaries can act as recruitment companies and be involved in human trafficking.
Recently, more migrants arrived in Tunisia through migration intermediaries who charge disproportionate fees in exchange for a signed employment contract and fake reservations in hotels upon their arrival. Then, once arrived, their passports are confiscated, and they are forced to several months of free labour under a new form of modern slavery.
The exploitation of underprivileged migrant workers is widespread in Tunisia. On some occasions, the employer might also give accommodation to the employees, which is a double-edged sword because it adds intrackability and invisibility to their exploitation. In general, labour exploitation takes the form of a lower average wage perceived by migrants in comparison with that received by Tunisians in the same position. But it might also include unpaid extra duties and hours.
Migrants working in the informal sector are exposed to work-related accidents that can even be lethal in the absence of adequate safety measures and insurance (CNSS and CNAM). If it is true that in Tunisia almost half of the population works in the informal sector, the percentage of migrants working informally is much higher than the national average. It is therefore urgent to address the informal employment of migrant workers, which only increases their vulnerability.
Furthermore, in certain work environments violent and racist behaviours against migrants are widespread, as some publications have reported.
Despite the critical situation of migrants’ labour rights in Tunisia, there are, still, positive examples of honest employers who do not exploit the migrant workforce. These examples should be adopted as best practices from policy makers.
Urgent changes required to better protect migrants at work
The relevant authorities must take urgent measures to curb the phenomenon of labour exploitation of migrants, by adopting the following steps:
- Launching a large-scale regularisation process of the administrative status of irregular migrants in Tunisia.
- Modify the Tunisian labour code, to adjust it to the contemporary needs of employers in search for workforce, better protect migrants’ rights and combat migrants’ employment in the informal sector.
- Include the migrants’ perspective in national labour policies.
- Increase monitoring checks to workplaces by labour inspectorates, setting a clear strategy on how to effectively implement sanctions in case of violations.
- Strengthen the role of trade unions in protecting migrant workers.
- Reinforce advocacy efforts for migrants’ rights with employers.
Migrants’ human rights and dignity must be protected and guaranteed. The Tunisian authorities must put an end to their labour exploitation. This would also benefit the Tunisian labour market because migrants can be an innovative force which could inject vitality into the national economy with their drive, if the latter is properly channelled by the right labour policies.
 More particularly the law n° 68-7 of 08/03/1968 relating to the condition of foreigners in Tunisia and the decree n° 68-198 of 22/06/1968 regulating the entry and stay of foreigners in Tunisia as modified by decree n°1992-716 of 20/04/1992.
 The CNSS, i.e., the National Social Security Fund and the CNAM, i.e., the National Health Insurance Fund.
 This statement is based on qualitative studies in the absence of quantitative statistical surveys.