Published: 01/02/2011

The mass revolt in Tunisia which drove Ben Ali from power has also changed the balance of power within companies. Trade unions played a crucial coordination and organizing role in the social upheaval.  At Coca-Cola’s Tunisian bottler SFBT, unions have seized the opportunity to negotiate an end to agency work and roll back the abusive use of precarious employment contracts.

The IUF spoke on February 1 with Houcine Krimi, responsible for transnational companies at our affiliate FGAT-UGTT.

How did Coca-Cola workers respond to the mass protests in the country?

We participated in all the demonstrations against the dictatorship. At the same time, we organized the casual workers to demand a solution to their appalling situation. They have been working for a labour agency where our collective agreements don’t apply, where social security payments are not made and they have no job security. They are on temporary contracts which are renewed each year, some of them since many years. That also effectively prohibits them from joining our union as they risk losing their jobs. This happened last year to workers at BST, Coca-Cola’s merchandising subsidiary.

We had a single demand: recognize these agency workers as direct SFBT employees. Under Tunisian law, every worker employed for more than 4 years must be directly employed on a permanent contract; we demanded that these workers be permanently employed by Coca-Cola, not with the agency.

For the others, with less than 4 years seniority, we demanded that they be employed on temporary contracts directly with SFBT, and permanently employed after 4 years.

What action did the union take at factory level?

We have been working on the issue of casual employment since last year, but it was very difficult to make progress. Now, with the new situation, the workers went on strike in support of their demands, first at Meghrine, one of the 10 Coca-Cola bottling plants in the country. They struck for a whole week. We also involved the labour inspection.

Did the permanent workers join the strike?

Yes, but we had to convince them first. In the beginning, they said they had many demands of their own. We explained that the single objective for now had to be fighting the system of casual work. Once we solved this we would be stronger and it would be easier to deal with other questions as a strong, united union in the company.

How did Coca-Cola management react to the strike and the demands?

The negotiations in Meghrine were truly difficult! In the other plants, the locals were not as quick to mobilize as in Meghrine. We concentrated here to make a breakthrough. Management tried to use this to say they could close the bottling plant in Meghrine if we demand too much.

They also tried to win time, saying that they couldn’t take decisions in an insecure political environment, “we’ll sort it out when things calm down” etc. But we didn’t believe them – after all, they weren’t ready to resolve the problem when everything was calm before the protests started!

We finally managed to convince them at Meghrine because it was clear the strike would continue if they didn’t meet our demands.

After a very long discussion with the management, they finally accepted our demands for Meghrine. The labour inspection was also helping us to push for a positive solution.

What were the results of this break-through at Meghrine?

We signed an agreement that all casual employees who have passed the 4-year line will sign permanent contracts directly with the Coca-Cola bottler – this covers 78 workers. The agency workers with more than 2 years seniority at Coca-Cola will now be directly employed by Coca-Cola on a temporary basis –32 workers will benefit from this.

Our activists had prepared a list of names of workers to be made permanent. Management had their own list. On that basis we negotiated a solution: the joint list is part of our agreement.

What happened then?

Of course, the union locals at the other factories wanted to follow this example. We worked with them to prepare for negotiations, but more importantly, mobilize the workers. We knew we needed to apply more pressure. We can’t negotiate successfully without mobilizing.

We started negotiations in the big plant in Ben Arouz, and on January 31 workers in Béjá went on strike. Workers from the Coca-Cola Charguia plant and the Brasserie de Tunis followed on February 1. That day we mobilized over 300 workers from these plants to demonstrate outside the SFBT headquarters where the negotiations took place.

When management understood that the protest wave would continue, we quickly reached our goal. We have signed an agreement to the effect that labour agencies will no longer be used in any establishment of the SFBT group: soft drinks, the brewery, the dairy operation, even bars and cafes belonging to the group. All workers with 4 years seniority at SFBT employed through labour agencies or on temporary contracts will be made permanent, direct employees at the company. This will affect over 1000 people. Everybody with less than 4 years will get direct temporary employment with SFBT, and will be covered under the collective bargaining agreement. That is another 1000 or so people.

What are the next steps?

We will carefully monitor the implementation of the agreement. At each location, management and the union will agree on a list of workers to be transferred to permanent status. Workers then have to get their documents together and present them to SFBT, after which they will be made permanent as of February 1. We’ve set a time limit until March 31 to finish this work. We’ll make sure all these workers join the union, and through this we’ll come out much stronger.

We are also currently doing similar work in other sectors and we expect more such agreements to be reached soon.