Tunisia’s main export commodity, phosphate, comes from mines in the Gafsa region, south-west of Tunisia, and is one of the main sources of state income (1, 2). However much damage is caused locally by poor infrastructure and working conditions, with a high level of illnesses and pollution.
In 2008, locals organised a big protest over poor working conditions and unemployment, however the peaceful movement had been brutally suppressed by the government (3). Local protests have resumed again after the 2011 revolution for a few years, mainly demanding employment in a highly profitable phosphate mine, in a region ironically struck by high employment rates and lack of development. There are also alarming environmental concerns regarding the mine’s operation affecting health of residents and polluting water resources. The region also lacks sewage, sanitation, electrical and potable water services (4). Sit-ins by unemployed youth as well as mine employees under strike, starting in January 2015 and intensifying in May, blocked the coal transport railway and mines. The protest succeeded in the temporary closure of the Metaloui phosphate plant, which operates under Compagnie des phosphates de Gafsa (CPG), the state-owned monopolising company producing most of the country’s’ phosphate (3, 5). Metaloui produces 60% of Tunisia’s phosphate output and is highly profitable, thus the blockage paralysed production and served as a major blow for the company’s revenues and state exports (2, 6, 7). In May 2015, it resumed operations after the protests temporarily stopped, with hopes of negotiation between the state and the youth groups (6). However, protests are still appearing and continue to raise similar concerns about employment, working conditions, environmental and social improvements. As an example, from the 12th of December to the 23rd of March 2018, more than 25 mobilizations taking various forms have been counted. [9; pp. 28 - 30]. New negotiations between youth and the company and between trade union and state representatives happened but without any outcome to be celebrated. [9; pp. 28 - 30]
In 2015, the CEO of CPG was reported to have said that the state is the one responsible for enhancing the wellbeing of the people and the region (3). The region is suffering from a high rate of pollution, diseases and water contamination related to mining. Cancer, asthma and infertility rates are unusually high in this region, as waterways are contaminated by industrial waste, and workers and residents constantly inhale toxic fumes (3, 8). While the mobilisation was mainly against economic and social marginalization, protesters also spoke out against pollution and unsafe working conditions (1, 6). Social and environmental injustice is evident, where locals are the ones harmed by environmental hazards and pollution while not benefiting from any employment. Locals are not demanding the closure or relocation of the industry provided they are employed through it. Nevertheless, they are subject to clear environmental hazards and health effects directly related to the phosphate industry.