Ghost workers sap Tunisia’s phosphate wealth

 Tunisia’s state phosphate firm CPG pays Abdel-Basset Klifhi a salary of $280 a month, even though he spends most days in his favourite cafe in the southern town of Metlaoui.

He is one of 21,000 people taken on by the Companie des Phosphates de Gafsa (CPG) since Tunisia’s autocrat president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011.

Since then, the economy has been in crisis and CPG has lost its spot as the country’s top exporter. Unemployment, inflation and deficits have shot up and the value of the dinar currency has plummeted. Loans from the International Monetary Fund have kept the government afloat.

CPG’s hiring spree brought its total workforce to about 30,000 and aimed to reduce the number of unemployed to stop protests destabilising the transition to democracy. Thousands more are still jobless, however, and some block roads to CPG daily to demand work. Others on the payroll want pay rises and frequently go on strike.

Phosphate production has halved since 2011 and CPG’s losses have accumulated as the wage bill grew. Employees point to other inefficiencies at the company.

CPG’s declining fortunes have highlighted the government’s failure to reform the bloated state companies that dominate the economy and have put Tunisia on a collision course with international donors.

They have also deprived the government of crucial export revenues needed to turn the economy around and create real jobs to end the daily protests and unrest, which largely target CPG.

“I get 850 dinars ($279.62) a month without doing any work,” said former protestor and CPG employee Abdul-Basset.

The company spends about $70 million a year of its $180 million annual budget on salaries, Industry and Energy Minister Slim Feriani said. His ministry oversees CPG.

“The hirings that took place after the revolution years were aimed at buying social peace but increased the suffering of the company,” he said.

“We are aware that they are not doing anything.”

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