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Re: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2005

March 09, 2006 10:06AM
The government blocked RWB's website, which contained critical material on the country's human rights record.

In April HRW held a press conference in Tunis to announce a report on solitary confinement (see section 1.c.).

The International Freedom of Expression Exchange – Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), a coalition of international human rights and freedom of expression NGOs, conducted fact-finding missions during the year. The IFEX-TMG reported heavy police surveillance of their activities and government interference with their mission. Police prevented translators and private citizens traveling with the group from attending some meetings.

In April the ICRC signed an agreement with the government that the local office could conduct visits to all prisons and detention centers in the country. The agreement followed more than a year of negotiations. The ICRC conducted visits starting in June and reported that access and cooperation with the government were good (see section 1.c). There were credible reports that police prevented some family members of prisoners from visiting ICRC offices. In September police allegedly assaulted the wife of an Islamist prisoner when she left AISPP offices, and they also prevented her from entering ICRC offices, reportedly telling her that she would be "put in prison with (her) husband" if she tried to enter the ICRC office.

The Ministry of Justice and Human Rights has the lead on government policy on human rights issues in the country, although other ministries also had human rights offices. The ministry did not release any public reports of cases or investigations. A government‑appointed and funded body, the Higher Commission on Human Rights and Basic Freedoms, addressed, and occasionally resolved human rights complaints. The commission submitted confidential reports directly to the president. The government maintained several government-run news sites that include sections on human rights, but the sites are not specifically identified as government sponsored. However, the government continued to block access to the sites of domestic human rights organizations (see section 2.a.).

Section 5 Discrimination, Societal Abuse, and Trafficking in Persons

The law provides that all citizens are equal before the law, and the government generally respected this right, although in inheritance and family law, biased‑based provisions in the civil code adversely affected women.

Women

Laws against domestic violence provide for fines and imprisonment for assaults committed by a spouse or family member that are double those for the same crimes committed by an unrelated individual, but enforcement was lax, as police and the courts generally regarded domestic violence as an internal family problem. Violence against women and spousal abuse occurred, but there were no statistics to measure its extent. The National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), a government‑sponsored organization that ran a center to assist women and children in difficulty, sponsored national educational campaigns for women. The UNFT reported that its shelter handled one thousand cases during the year. The ATFD, active in debating and publicizing women's issues, operated a counseling center for female victims and reported that its shelter assisted approximately 100 women using the shelter for the first time during the year, in addition to a continuing caseload from previous years.

The penal code specifically prohibits rape, including spousal rape, and the government enforced the laws vigorously, giving significant press coverage to rape cases. Perhaps due to social stigma, there were no reports of prosecution for spousal rape. The death sentence is the penalty for rape with the use of violence or threat with a weapon. For all other rape cases, the penalty is life imprisonment.

The penal code prohibits prostitution, although individuals were rarely charged. The penalty for prostitution is up to two years in prison. The law applies to both women and men and their accomplices. There were no reported cases of trafficking or forced prostitution involving women.

In August 2004 the chamber of deputies passed the country's first law making sexual harassment a criminal offense, but the government subsequently suspended the law after civil society groups vociferously criticized it. Nevertheless, sexual harassment was a problem, although there were no comprehensive data to measure its extent.

Women enjoyed substantial rights, and the government advanced those rights in the areas of divorce and property ownership. Women enjoy the same legal status as men. The law explicitly requires equal pay for equal work, and although there were no statistics comparing the average earnings of men and women, anecdotal evidence indicated that women and men performing the same work received the same wages. A slight majority of university students were women.

Women served in high levels of the government as cabinet ministers and secretaries of state, comprising more than 13 percent of the total, and President Ben Ali appointed the country's first female governor in April 2004 (see section 3). Women constituted approximately 37 percent of the civil service and 24 percent of the nation's jurists. However, women still faced societal and economic discrimination.

Codified civil law is based on the Napoleonic code, although judges often used Shari'a as a basis for customary law in family and inheritance. Most property acquired during marriage, including property acquired solely by the wife, is held in the name of the husband. Muslim women are not permitted to marry outside their religion. Marriages of Muslim women to non‑Muslim men abroad are considered common‑law and are voided when the couple returns to the country. Application of inheritance law continued to discriminate against women, and there was a double standard based on gender and religion: non‑Muslim women and Muslim men who are married may not inherit from each other. The government considers all children from those marriages to be Muslim, and forbids those children from inheriting anything from their mothers. Female citizens can convey citizenship rights to their children whether the father is a citizen or not.

In February 2004 the government launched a morality campaign invoking a 1940 law penalizing "immoral behavior" that observers said primarily affected women. For example, women were detained for wearing jeans that police judged too tight, for holding hands with men in public, and for driving with young men "without authorization." However, this campaign was discontinued later in 2004, and there was no enforcement of these penalties during the year.

The Ministry for Women's Affairs, Family, Children and Senior Citizens sponsored several national media campaigns to promote awareness of women's rights. Nearly two‑thirds of its budget was devoted to ensuring the legal rights of women, while simultaneously improving their socioeconomic status. The government supported and funded the UNFT, the Center for Research, Documentation, and Information on Women (CREDIF), and women's professional associations. Several NGOs focused on women's advocacy and research in women's issues, and a number of attorneys represented women in domestic cases.

Children

The government demonstrated a strong commitment to free and universal public education, which is compulsory from age 6 to 16 years. According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), 95 percent of boys and 93 percent of girls were in primary school, and approximately 73 percent of boys and 76 percent of girls were in secondary school. During the year, female students graduated from secondary school at a higher rate than their male counterparts. There were schools for religious groups (see section 2.c.). The government sponsored an immunization program targeting preschool‑age children and reported vaccinating more than 95 percent of children. Male and female students received equal access to medical care.

Convictions for abandonment and assault on minors carried severe penalties. There was no societal pattern of child abuse.

Child labor and child prostitution were not significant problems. There were two ministries responsible for rights of children: the Ministry of Women's Affairs, Family, and Childhood, and the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Physical Training. Each had secretaries of state responsible for safeguarding the rights of children.

Trafficking in Persons

The law prohibits trafficking in persons, and there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country.

In January 2004 the legislature approved amendments to the 1975 law on passports and travel documents. The law includes provisions for sentencing convicted traffickers to prison terms of 3 to 20 years, and fines of $67 thousand to $83 thousand (80 thousand to 100 thousand dinars). The amendments brought national law into conformance with the international protocol agreement on trafficking of persons. The government prepared to use provisions of the penal code to combat trafficking should the need arise. For example, traffickers could be prosecuted under laws prohibiting forced displacement of persons.

The Ministry of Interior and Local Development and the Ministry of Social Affairs, Solidarity and Tunisians Abroad were the agencies responsible for antitrafficking efforts. Since trafficking was not deemed a problem, there were no specific government campaigns to prevent trafficking.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against those with physical or mental disabilities and mandates at least 1 percent of public and private sector jobs be reserved for persons with disabilities, and the government generally enforced these provisions. There was little discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, or in the provision of other state services. All public buildings constructed since 1991 must be accessible to persons with physical disabilities, and this was enforced. The government issued special cards to persons with disabilities for benefits such as unrestricted parking, priority medical services, preferential seating on public transportation, and consumer discounts. The government provided tax incentives to companies to encourage the hiring of persons with physical disabilities, and the government strongly supported NGOs working to help persons with disabilities.

Several active NGOs provided educational, vocational, and recreational assistance to children and young adults with mental disabilities. The government and international organizations funded several programs. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Solidarity and Tunisians Abroad was responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law provides workers the right to organize and form unions, and the government generally respected this right in practice. The UGTT was the country's only labor federation. There were some unauthorized, independent trade unions: the Democratic Confederation for Labor and the Tunisian Journalists Syndicate. Approximately 30 percent of the work force belonged to the UGTT, including civil servants and employees of state‑owned enterprises, and a considerably larger proportion of the work force was covered by union contracts. A union may be dissolved only by court order. Approximately 27 percent of the total workforce was unionized.

The UGTT and its member unions were legally independent of the government and the ruling party; however, they operated under regulations that restricted their freedom of action. The UGTT membership included persons associated with all political tendencies. There were credible reports that the UGTT received substantial government subsidies to supplement union dues; however, UGTT leaders stated that their only funding came from modest union dues and revenue from an insurance company and hotel owned by the union. Union members and their families received additional support from the National Social Security Account (CNSS). The government provided the UGTT with land for its new headquarters and support for its construction. The central UGTT leadership generally cooperated with the government regarding its economic reform program. Throughout the year, the UGTT board showed some independence regarding economic and social issues, and in support of greater democracy. At mid-year, the UGTT refused to submit a list of candidates for 14 UGTT-designated seats in the newly created Chamber of Advisors, citing a lack of independence and democracy in the selection process and an unfair distribution of seats (see section 3). The UGTT supported the LTDH and allowed LTDH regional chapters to use UGTT facilities for conferences and meetings.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers, although the UGTT claimed that there was antiunion activity among private sector employers, such as the firing of union activists and using temporary workers to avoid unionization. In certain industries, such as textiles, hotels, and construction, temporary workers accounted for a large majority of the work force. The labor code protects temporary workers, but enforcement was more difficult than in the case of permanent workers. A committee chaired by an officer from the Labor Inspectorate of the Office of the Inspector General approved all worker dismissals. The committee is composed of representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Solidarity and Tunisians Abroad, the UGTT, and the company dismissing the worker.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law protects the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the government protected this right in practice. Wages and working conditions are set in triennial negotiations between the UGTT member unions and employers. Numerous collective bargaining agreements set standards for industries in the private sector and covered 80 percent of the total private sector workforce. The government's role in private sector negotiations was minimal, consisting mainly of lending its good offices as a mediator if talks stalled. The government must approve, but may not modify, all agreements; once approved, the agreements are binding on both union and nonunion workers in the line of work that they cover. The UGTT also negotiated wages and work conditions of civil servants and employees of state‑owned enterprises. The government was the partner in such negotiations. During the year the triennial labor negotiations with the UGTT, the Union of Tunisian Employers (the private sector employer's association) and the government continued as the UGTT sought more favorable wage increases for employees.

Unions, including those representing civil servants, have the right to strike, provided that they give 10 days advance notice to the UGTT, and it grants approval. The ICFTU has characterized the requirement for prior UGTT approval of strikes as a violation of worker rights, but such advance approval rarely was sought in practice. There were numerous short‑lived strikes over failure by employers to fulfill contract provisions regarding pay and conditions and over efforts by employers to impede union activities. While the majority of the strikes technically were illegal, the government did not prosecute workers for illegal strike activity. The law prohibited retribution against strikers. Labor disputes were settled through conciliation panels in which labor and management were represented equally. Tripartite regional arbitration commissions settle industrial disputes when conciliation fails.

There are export‑processing zones (EPZs) subject to regular labor laws.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced and compulsory labor, including by children, and there were no reports that such practices occurred. However, some parents of teenage girls placed their daughters as domestic servants and collected their wages (see section 6.d.).

d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the employment of children under 18 in jobs whose nature and environment present a serious threat to their health, security and morality, and the UGTT and CNSS conducted inspection tours of factories and industrial sites to ensure compliance with the law.

In April the government amended the Household Workers Law to prohibit the employment of children under the age of 16 years, which is consistent with the age for completing educational requirements, and inspectors of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Solidarity examined the records of employees to verify that employers complied with the minimum age law. However, there were no reports of sanctions against employers. Child labor also existed in the informal sector disguised as apprenticeship, particularly in the handicraft industry.

The minimum age for light work in the nonindustrial and agricultural sectors during nonschool hours was 13 years. Workers between the ages of 14 and 18 must have 12 hours of rest per day, which must include the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. In nonagricultural sectors, children between the ages of 14 and 16 years may work no more than 2 hours per day. The total time that children spend in school and work may not exceed seven hours per day. Nonetheless, young children sometimes performed agricultural work in rural areas, and worked as vendors in towns, primarily during their summer vacation from school.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The labor code provides for a range of administratively determined minimum wages. In August the industrial minimum wage was raised to $179 (224 dinars) per month for a 48‑hour workweek and to $155 (194 dinars) per month for a 40‑hour workweek. The agricultural daily minimum wage was $5.87 (7.33 dinars) per day for "specialized" agricultural workers and $6.17 (7.71 dinars) per day for "qualified" agricultural workers. With the addition of transportation and family allowances, the minimum wage provided a decent standard of living for a worker and family, although that income was only enough to cover essential costs. More than 500 thousand workers were employed in the informal sector, which was not covered by labor laws.

Regional labor inspectors were responsible for enforcing standards related to hourly wage regulations. They inspected most firms approximately once every two years. The government often had difficulty enforcing the minimum wage law, particularly in nonunionized sectors of the economy. The labor code sets a standard 48‑hour workweek for most sectors and requires one 24‑hour rest period per week.

Special government regulations governed employment in hazardous occupations like mining, petroleum engineering, and construction, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Solidarity and Tunisians Abroad had responsibility for enforcing health and safety standards in the workplace. Working conditions and standards generally were better in export-oriented firms than in those firms producing exclusively for the domestic market. Workers were free to remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardizing their employment, and they could take legal action against employers who retaliated against them for exercising this right.

The few foreign workers in the country had the same protections as citizen workers.
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Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2005

hasni March 09, 2006 10:01AM

Re: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2005

hasni March 09, 2006 10:06AM