BEN AROUS, TUNISIA — `DUST."
That is the quick response Bernard Dumas offers when asked what factor could eventually brake development of a high-tech electronic components industry in Tunisia, and North Africa in general.
"It's always in the air from the arid lands and nearby desert sands," says the director of CEBA, a French-owned electronics assembly subcontracting company here whose acronym stands for "Constructeurs Electroniques de Ben Arous. "Companies could solve the dust problem by investing in the buildings, of course, but that's not their objective," he says. "If they're here, it's to rent cheap and keep other costs low, in exchange for quality work."
The enthusiastic Mr. Dumas has been running CEBA here for three years, over which time the assembly operation has grown to employ 85 people.
The plant is reminiscent of the maquiladoras, Mexico's foreign-owned assembly plants that employ more than 500,000 people along the US border: The CEBA building sits in Ben Arous, a Tunis suburb where many modern services have yet to arrive; inside the building most of the employees are women, another characteristic of the maquiladoras.
"Look at that detailed work," says Dumas, pointing out a young woman nimbly pulling thread-thin copper wires through tiny fuses. "Only women can do that." The assemblers earn about $250 a month, technicians $400, and engineers closer to $1,000. There's a monthly bonus based on sales and quality.
Other than the dust, Dumas lists the advantages and disadvantages of Tunisia for a foreign investor. "It's a stable country, the employees want to work hard and learn, and it's a culture with which we [in France] have ties so we can communicate," he says.
"On the other hand," he adds, "the infrastructure hasn't improved in the 10 years I've been working in this area, and their customs operations need a lot of progress to cut the bureaucracy and delays."
CEBA sees its presence in Tunisia as a modest opportunity to introduce some new management practices to the developing world. Employees earn a "13th month" of pay based on the "grade" they've earned during the year, and the company has acted to employ and promote the physically handicapped. "Some of our most productive employees are individuals who had been rejected by Tunisian society," he says.
Tunisia's major competitors in wooing plants like CEBA are in Southeast Asia, according to Dumas. But Asia's competitive edge is reinforced by European Community regulations on North African assembly operations, he says: "We are required to buy a certain percentage of our components in Europe in order to meet EC regulations, but the Asians face no similar rules."
Not far from Ben Arous is Fouchana, another village developing an industrial zone mostly for European manufacturers. There, Dumas is also director of Tunitec, a French microelectronic subsidiary making sophisticated parts for such customers as Airbus and Arianespace in France.
But in Fouchana, too, there is the problem of dust. "We have the false ceilings, the air conditioning, but the dust still exists," says Dumas. "It's a problem that goes with the territory."