When Besma Marzouk came to work one morning in mid-2017, she found that the factory she had labored in for 22 years had closed—all without warning, explanation, or two months’ backpay.
“I started at the factory…[when] I was 14-years-old,” she recalled in an interview with the Fund for Global Human Rights. “I went there…when I was a child and I worked there until I myself had children.”
Located in the coastal city of Monastir, Tunisia, the factory was one of seven operated by the Zannier (now Kidiliz) Group—a French company that manufactures children’s clothing for international brands, including Absorba, Chipie, and Levi’s Kids. According to Besma, the trouble began sometime in 2016, after Zannier sold the factory and a new manager took over.
“We were 170 people [when he came]. He started beating [us], breaking things, saying blasphemous words. Some of the girls started leaving the factory because of what he was doing. By the end, only 50 of us remained. When we returned from our yearly summer vacations in August 2017, the facility was shut down.”
Staring up at the shuttered building, Besma wondered how she and her husband would support their family of five without her salary—and how, at her age and in her physical condition, she would ever find another job.
“I have varicose veins in my legs because I worked while standing up at the iron the whole day. Every part of my body got damaged—my neck, my back. I have diabetes. I have high blood pressure, because I am always under stress.”
Robbed of their jobs in a country where labor rights abuses are common and laws protecting workers are weak and rarely enforced, Besma and her co-workers had two choices: accept the injustice, or fight back. They chose the latter. And with the help of the Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Économiques et Sociaux (FTDES), a longtime Fund grantee, they aren’t giving up.
Deteriorating conditions for women in the textile industry
“There are almost 50,0000 women working in textile factories that export largely to the European Union,” said Mounir Hassine, director of FTDES’ Monastir branch. “And there are a lot of abuses of social and economic rights of the women working in the sector.”
Founded in the aftermath of the 2010 Arab Spring, FTDES promotes the social, economic, and environmental rights of the most marginalized members of Tunisian society—including women in the textile industry.
FTDES’ research has revealed that, since 2005, the conditions for women working in Tunisia’s textile sector have majorly declined. The organization has also documented an increase in the closure of factories without notice, and the arbitrary dismissal of workers who, like Besma, have been employed for over 20 years.
According to Mounir, Tunisian laws are written in ways that allow for these injustices. But there are also legal avenues for pushing back—avenues FTDES helps women access through its Monastir “listening center,” where workers can learn about their rights and receive legal, psychological, and other support.
Textile workers turned frontline activists
FTDES is well-known in the greater Monastir area—a reputation that brought Besma and her colleagues to their doorstep in early 2018. But first, the women tried to take matters into their own hands.
“We went to…the Mayor, to the Head of the Municipality, yelling ‘How come our factory is shut down? How are we going to feed our children? What is our destiny?’” she recounted.
When their demands fell on deaf ears, they took to the streets to peacefully vocalize their grievances. When this tactic also failed to evoke a response from the authorities, they took their case to court.
“[The judge] said we have rights. Now, we are waiting for those rights [to be upheld in] a court decision.”
As they await a decision, Besma and nine other women are occupying the abandoned factory in a show of ongoing resistance. Their protest began in January 2018; since then, they have worked in shifts to maintain a round-the-clock presence at the facility, while also keeping up with household chores “so [our husbands] do not get annoyed.” Besma told the Fund they will not leave until the factory reopens or they are fairly compensated for their losses.
“If this does not happen and we do not get anything….we will stay here for 100 years.”
Besma and her peers reached out to FTDES shortly after they began occupying the factory. The organization has provided them with basic necessities, such as food and water, so that they can maintain their sit-in. It has also assisted them in their court case and helped them publicize their plight in social and traditional media.
“When we go and demonstrate in the street, [FTDES] comes with us. They make videos of us, put us on social media, help us to get known and heard by people [in Tunisia and beyond], because the authorities do not listen to us…I really would like to thank them.”
Fighting for their families’ future
Over a year since Besma’s factory closed, she and her former co-workers show no signs of giving up. They are demanding 20,000 to 30,000 Tunisian dinars each (US$8,000 to US$10,000), to compensate for arbitrary dismissal, withheld wages, and the annual bonus they were denied. It remains an uphill battle, but one they and their supporters at FTDES are determined to win—not just for themselves, but for their children.
“I want to work so that I can educate my children well, so that they don’t become bad people,” sai