In recent years, Tunisia has become a destination and country of transit for thousands of sub-Saharan migrants. For many, it is a necessary stopover on their route to Europe. Until continuing on to the next leg of their journey, these individuals support themselves through a variety of generally informal, often precarious, economic activities. This is the case for 25-year-old Ansu from Sierra Leone. Every day, Ansu stations himself in the middle of an intersection along a main road in the capital.

Equipped with a rag and cleaning liquid, his eyes are peeled for drivers who consent to having their windows sprayed and wiped down. At each red light, Ansu dangerously weaves his way through cars lined up at the intersection. His recompense is meager: between a few hundred millimes and a dinar, he informs Nawaat.

Ansu is not new to this work and says he is satisfied with its remuneration, in spite of the hostility and aggression he sometimes faces. Before arriving in Tunisia, the young man traveled through Guinea, Mali and Algeria. He started cleaning windows in Algeria to support himself.

« I don’t have a choice. I left my country because there was no way to make a living », says the Sierra Leonean, who hopes to make his way to Europe. His intended trajectory, an irregular one, will cost him 3,500 dinars. Today, Ansu has saved 300 dinars, and intends to work hard to earn the rest, even though this means navigating frequent « police harassment ». As he tells Nawaat, « the police threatened to arrest me if I didn’t get out of here. And in fact, I’m replacing a compatriot who was arrested not long ago ».

Pervasive informal sector

The influx of migrant workers in Tunisia is not a new trend. Between 2003-2014, the establishment of the African Development Bank (ADB), plus the exemption of an entry visa for nationals from several sub-Saharan countries are contributing factors to this migration. For years, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has granted the visa exemption as a means of strengthening economic exchange with these countries.

And although this workforce is not new to Tunisia, it has changed along with the recent massive flow of migrants into the country. Each year, some 5,000 foreign workers find employment in the formal sector. Of these , 40% are from European countries, 31% are from the Arab world, 14% are from Asia and 4% are from sub-Saharan Africa, according to a booklet on migrant access to work in Tunisia, published by the NGO Terre d’asile. The same source reports that half of these workers assume highly-skilled positions, 41% take jobs as tourism and sports professionals, while 8% find positions as skilled workers in the industrial sector and unskilled workers in the service sector.

Foreign workers in the formal sector, however, represent a minority of migrants in Tunisia. The majority, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), find informal work, primarily in agriculture, construction, domestic work, manufacturing export industries, services and tourism.

The concentration of migrant workers in the informal sector bears a direct correlation with their residency status in Tunisia. Aside from refugees and students, the majority of migrants arrive in Tunisia by irregular means.

There is nevertheless another category of migrants who disembark in Tunisia by regular means; these are individuals who benefit from an entry visa or visa exemption allowing for a stay of up to three months. But unless they obtain a work permit and residency card, these migrants eventually end up in an irregular situation. Faced with a 20-dinar weekly penalty, they risk detention or expulsion from the country.

Kadi falls into this category. Originally from the Ivory Coast, Kadi arrived in Tunisia by regular means. However, unable to find work in the formal sector, she found herself in an irregular situation as soon as her residency card expired. With no other job prospects, Kadi took a job as a cleaning lady for a company that pays her a salary of 600 dinars. She has neither social coverage nor insurance of any kind. She feels like her hands are tied in Tunisia: « I have neither the means necessary to return to my country, nor to attempt crossing over to Europe », she tells Nawaat.

Work conditions for migrants in Tunisia are conducive to all sorts of abuses. Recruitment takes place « by word of mouth », explains Saint-Juste Boussou, a member of the Association of Ivorians in Tunisia. Factory workers, he informs us, receive a salary ranging between 600-750 dinars a month.

Manual laborers, such as the two assistant house painters we meet at a work site, receive about the same monthly pay. Their site manager, Lassad, tells Nawaat that these workers receive 25 dinars for a day of work that lasts from 7am until 4pm. Lassad met these men in the neighborhood. He relates that this workforce has compensated for a lack of Tunisian laborers: « Tunisians no longer want this kind of hard work. Moreover, they demand higher pay: around 35 dinars ». For lunch, each worker receives a baguette and carton of leben (fermented milk). Originally from Chad, the two apprentices do not complain. They are content to have secured a job which enables them « to live ».

Their wages are paid in cash every week, or every other week. This is the case for most migrant workers, says Saint-Juste Boussou, adding that the situation for workers is slowly improving. « Aside from live-in household workers who work close to 12 hours, others generally enjoy fairer working conditions ». Nevertheless, he notes, « they remain uninsured by their employers for work accidents. They do not enjoy any degree of stability ».

This situation is a boon for employers who gain the benefit of flexibility. For migrant workers, on the other hand, the consequences are precarity and vulnerability. « This irregular status has negative consequences for migrants on many levels: it prevents work in formal, decent conditions, including in terms of social coverage and access to care; it prevents access to justice since in the case of assault or dispute, migrants are afraid to bring their complaints before the authorities », writes Terre d’asile.

The result, warns the NGO, is an environment that is conducive to a range of abuses, from sexual harassment—as in the case of sub-Saharan domestic workers—to the confiscation of identity documents, employers’ delayed payment of workers’ salaries, etc.

Above all, Saint-Juste Boussou laments that migrants find themselves obligated to settle for thankless, unskilled work, whereas some hold degrees in higher-education. « Many are over-qualified for the positions they hold ». Having worked as a business consultant in his country, Boussou himself now works under the table in a call center.

Without a legal framework, « disorder prevails »

The absence of a clear legal framework on migrant work means that the field is left open to all sorts of violations against worker rights. Tunisia applies the principle of national bias in terms of access to work, even in the formal sector. Between two equally-qualified candidates, priority goes to the Tunisian worker. Access to formal sector employment is granted to certain categories of foreigners, under restrictive conditions and for a fixed duration of time. However, as Terre d’asile highlights, « once a foreigner disposes of a residency card which mentions ‘authorized for paid employment in Tunisia’, he enjoys certain rights that are associated with his status as a migrant worker ».

Furthermore, Tunisian legislation does not recognize all international mechanisms designed to preserve migrant workers’ rights. The only international convention that Tunisia has ratified in this regard is the Migration for Employment Convention 97 of 1949 relating to working conditions.

Notably, Tunisia does not adhere to the Migrant Workers Convention 143 of 1975 which combats illegal employment and guarantees fundamental rights to irregular workers. As Terre d’asile mentions, Tunisia also did not sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990).

Restrictions on access to work in the formal sector also apply to foreign students who have settled in Tunisia by regular means. At the start of their academic career in Tunisia, students are required to promise, in writing, that they will neither work in nor leave the country.

Students are able to work only if they have a residency card that specifies « authorized for paid employment in Tunisia ». However, according to a study by Terre d’asile and the National Migration Observatory (ONM) called « Expectations and satisfaction of sub-Saharan students in Tunisia » (2018), many have trouble obtaining such a card. And yet many students need to work in order to supplement their scholarship or the allowance provided by their parents.

Tunisian legislation is repressive in its treatment of foreign workers. The Law of 1968 on the condition of foreigners in Tunisia and the Work Code prescribe sanctions for employees and employers who have committed violations. These sanctions are of greater consequence for the employee.  A migrant worker with neither contract nor work permit faces a range of possible sanctions, from a simple lay off, to imprisonment and expulsion from the country. In contrast, the employer is penalized with a fine ranging between 12-30 dinars per worker, per day.

In order to remedy the situation of vulnerability that foreign workers find themselves in, Boussou calls for clarifying the legal status of migrants in Tunisia. Terre d’asile recommends unionization. The law guarantees foreign workers in a regular situation the freedom of association, although few exercise this right, the NGO points out. Furthermore, this freedom is inaccessible to migrants who work in the informal sector.

Tunisia’s main labor union lacks sufficient data regarding migrant workers, Abdallah Echi of the General Labor Union (UGTT) tells Nawaat. « Disorder prevails in this matter ». Indeed, Echi adds, « migrant workers themselves are not aware of their rights ». To counter such shortcomings, the UGTT has set up a concept called « Espace migrants » in different regions throughout the country as a means of informing, guiding and providing legal assistance to migrants—whether their status is regular or irregular—who experience abuse or mistreatment at work.