UMM AL-ARAIS, Tunisia, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Young men block the entrance of a Tunisian phosphate mine, halting exports as they demand jobs in a conflict that is exacerbating an economic crisis in the North African country.
Hundreds have occupied the mines of state-run Gafsa Phosphate (CPG), the main employer in the country’s poor southern region, depriving Tunisia of badly needed hard currency and drawing a warning from a local MP that continued protests would hit the company.
The conflict symbolises the struggle the government faces as it tries to cut a public wage bill that is among the world’s highest at almost 15 percent of GDP, and its deficit as agreed with foreign donors, all while trying to tame dissent.
Protests broke out across the country in January, with many angry at being worse off than before a 2011 uprising toppled autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The subsequent turmoil has scared off tourists and investors while fuelling unemployment and inflation as the dinar’s value slid by 40 percent.
Those demonstrations have stopped, but youths have switched tactics to blocking all the phosphate mines and hitting the state where it hurts most.
While there have been protests before, this is the first time all mines are shut.
“We will not end our protest unless the government hires us all,” said Ahmed Essam, camping out in a makeshift tent at a mine in the southern town of Umm al-Arais.
“We suffer from pollution from the phosphate production, such as ground water contamination, but don’t benefit from exports,” 40-year-old Essam said. “In the capital you have a nice life, but we have nothing.”
The government has been trying to negotiate an end to the protests to no avail. With little coordination between groups of protestors it is difficult to reach a deal. Whenever new hires are announced, as happened three weeks ago, other unemployed men show up to take their place.
“The (CPG) company cannot occupy everyone,” Khaled Kadour, minister of energy, told state radio.
CPG, which employs more than 30,000 people, produced 4.15 million tonnes of phosphate last year versus 3.3 million tonnes in 2016, its data showed.
Once one of the world’s largest phosphate makers, Tunisia’s production has halved since 2010 because of repeated protests and a fall in foreign buyers.
Still, the industry remains a key hard currency earner. Tourism, another big source of income, nearly collapsed after two militant attacks in 2015. The number of foreign visitors rose by 23 percent in 2017 but is still below pre-2011 levels.
The economy has deteriorated further in recent weeks, with hard currency reserves falling to a 15-year low and less than three months’ worth.
The mining conflict highlights a divide in Tunisia, where wealth is concentrated in the capital Tunis and its coastline. In these areas you find highways, railways and what foreign investment the country has managed to attract.
In the hinterland and south it’s a different story. It takes six hours to drive to the phosphate mine from Tunis because roads are so poor on the 400km (249 miles) route.
The south has only one major private investor, Delice , a food maker co-owned by France’s Danone.
That has left the phosphate industry as the focal point of the growing anger. Most protestors have high school or even university degrees but can’t find work. In Gasfa province unemployment is almost 30 percent, double the national average.
“I have been jobless since graduation in 2006,” said 23-year-old Fawzi Mohseen, one of the mine occupiers.
The public service has long been the main employer in Tunisia, part of Ben Ali’s system to buy loyalty, but the government has been trying to change this as part of efforts to bolster empty coffers.
Local lawmaker Adnen Hajji agreed that the public service could not hire everyone but that corruption at state companies made matters worse.
“There are some who take a salary but don’t produce anything,” he said. “There is corruption, there is no transparency about hirings, that’s why there are protests and chaos. Now the company is closed.”
Ali Houchati, a company spokesman, said “talking about corruption is a populist discourse” but declined to comment further.
Stability in Tunisia is of concern for Western countries as locals have joined a trail of illegal migrants to Europe or to Libya, Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State. ($1 = 2.3600 Tunisian dinars) (Additional reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)