Hard times force major Tunisia industry cutbacks

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The phosphate industry is the largest employer in Tunisia and the third largest source of foreign currency, after petroleum and tourism. Phosphates are an essential ingredient in chemical fertilizers. In 1986, the industry brought in over $300 million. Today, the bottom has fallen out of the phosphate market (world prices have fallen some 40 percent since 1982), contributing to Tunisia's financial crisis and forcing the government to radically restructure the industry.

The Gafsa Phosphate Company is now carrying out a program to reduce costs by 25 percent. Like the American railroad companies during the 1800s, Gasfa has been a state within a state. It provided housing, food, water, electricity, and schooling for its workers. No longer. As part of the restructuring program, 2,800 workers in its 12,000-man work force receive early retirement or job retraining. Gasfa is already planning more lay offs.

The Gafsa Phosphate Company is also phasing out workers' benefits. From now on workers will have to pay for their housing; and they will pay utility bills to the national utility companies. ``For workers, it's the end of certain privileges and facilities,'' says company chairman Negib Ben Debba. ``We are also lessening the means of pressure [that] workers had on the company.''

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Gafsa has one of the oldest and strongest trade union movements in the country. Yet labor has been quiet over the lay offs and abrupt removal of privileges. This is partly because, over the past year, the government disbanded Tunisia's once-powerful independent union, replacing it with a government-controlled one. Workers so fear losing their jobs, company officials say, that productivity in the past year increased by 25 percent.

While it continues to cut costs, the company is increasing production. In 1986, it produced 5.8 million tons; by 1989, it's aiming for 7 million tons a year.

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