Redeyef is a phosphate-mining town close to the border of Algeria, known to be the site of important uprisings in 2008, a foretaste of Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine revolution. A few weeks ago, Ulula visited local miners to understand and discuss community needs related to stakeholder engagement and company-community dynamics in a politically unstable environment. Abed, father of six, has made a living from working in the water treatment of phosphate washing activities for the last six years. He works for one of the most important phosphate mining companies in Tunisia, the Compagnie de Phosphate de Gafsa (CPG), which is the 5th largest phosphate producer in the world and delivers 8 million tons of phosphate per year.
He starts our conversation by emphasizing that “The Tunisian revolution began here, in Redeyef- it was a phosphate revolution before being a Jasmine revolution”. He is referring to protests and social movements in 2008, which erupted in Redeyef as CPG allegedly rigged employment procedures and angered prospective workers. The protests was ininitailly peaceful, but soon escalated into severe rioting. “We had enough of seeing political favoritism replace merit in the workplace”, Abed says, before continuing to explain how Redeyef’s high unemployment rates (currently at 30%, and 69% for people with a degree) and favoritism at the workplace still persist today, three years after the 2011 Jasmine revolution.
As a result, in the last couple of years this region in Tunisia has witnessed continuous bouts of localized protests, endemic strikes and road blockages. These unrests have at times put phosphate production on hold, costing local society and business money and job opportunities. In January 2014, for example, production halted for a full three months due to protests, causing CPG’s phosphate production to fall by 27% during the first three months of the year. The blockade nearly resulted in the suspension of a 300 million Euro investment into the El Mdhilla II project, a chemical fertilizer plant, which is designed to generate 500 new job opportunities. Since 2011, it is estimated that the accumulated revenue loss for CPG due to strikes and the inability to change the workplace situation for miners amounts to 1.5 billion USD.
Abed is certain serious protests will flare up in the near future, as Redeyef’s perception of being abandoned by the Government, as well as the workers’ frustration with not being listened by the company is increasingly frustrating the local population.
“I think there will be worse protests in the future because there is high unemployment and phosphate is the only source of income for the region. All the money and richness goes to the capital and the state does nothing for the inhabitants of Redeyef. For years we have been asking to engage directly with company officials to overcome favoritism”
The lack of meaningful and widespread communication between the CPG, workers, the government, and the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), the biggest Tunisian labor union, as well as widespread feeling of being ignored among the local community, are recognized issues at the local and national level. On a visit to the Gafsa phosphate basin in 2001, Khalil Zouia, minister of Social Affairs, recognized that “local populations of Gafsa, Sidi bouzid and Kasserine must feel that their issues are finally taken into consideration by Tunis”. Local UGTT representative Ben Ahmed highlights that “there is a sentiment of despair amongst the population of the whole [phosphate] region relative to the system in its entirety” and further calls for increasing participation of the Government to listening to and responding to these problems.
Yet despite these acknowledgements and although a comprehensive feedback mechanism stream is an obvious component of risk management, the state-owned CPG has no formal grievance or feedback mechanism to systematically capture and respond to local concerns. In Tunisia mobile penetration rates have reached 120%. However, the potential of using this technology for development purposes is largely limited to mobile financing services. Utilizing technology-centered approaches to address human development issues in politically instable and low-income countries is a rapidly expanding field, but one that is still struggling to demonstrate their effectiveness beyond selected areas of emergency response, banking the underbanked, and public health.
With this in mind, a simple mobile platform could be set up to collect and respond to workers’ feedback, and to monitor community sentiments for those communities that are most directly affected by mining activities like Redeyef, Moulares, Metlaoui, and Mdhila. That same mobile platform could be used to enhance local job markets by creating job matching services that bypass job tendering mechanisms that are prone to elite capture and clientelism. Such a solution could ease tensions between CPG and local communities, and at the same time help alleviate some of the social and economic issues that are at the heart of the frequent demonstrations. However, while statistics show high mobile penetration rates, local populations are willing and need to engage in direct dialogue with companies, the key to deploying a successful stakeholder engagement using mobile technology relies on a non-technical prerequisite: there needs to be a clear commitment by CPG to engage and act upon the feedback, by integrating appropriate response mechanisms into their daily business practices for instance. If this were not the case, unfulfilled expectations would risk fuelling further, more serious social unrest.