Driving along the north highway towards Carthage, the ancient city of Northern Tunisia and the land of one of the most prosperous civilizations in ancient history, looking at the beautiful Mediterranean sea at my right and skipping through a radio channel, an interesting debate caught my attention and here how it went:
The talk show was about a pre-strike warning announced by one of the union leaders and that came following a series of fatal accidents at one of the public companies and few other private contractors in various job sites.
After a tragic accident, you would expect that the lack of safety and the diagnosis leading to it would be at the heart of the debate with the parties involved. Additionally, you would expect that compensation to the families of victims be directed by the established body of laws and regulations especially in the case of a public company rather than being dictated and negotiated between the management and the union.
I was surprised and even shocked to find none of the above was the way things were going following those fatal accidents. Instead, everyone seemed to agree that the most important issue in this sad situation was to compensate the families of victims by enforcing a previously negotiated agreement between the union and management - consisting of hiring sons or daughters of the victims as a matter of compensation. The talk show was all about the struggle between the union and management on enforcing this agreement and extending it to private contractors.
In my opinion, simply put, this was the wrong debate as it is the wrong role among other wrong roles that unions in Tunisia have been playing such as claiming a monopoly of care for labor work conditions in the extractive industries in Tunisia or heavily interfering in the political scene and that is an important topic by itself that could be addressed at another occasion.
Indeed, without detailing the compensation package to victims’ families that experts can tell you more about it (which should be primarily in a monetary form as it is required by law), the debate shouldn’t be about compensating somebody in a form of hiring one of his family members but should be about changing the conditions in the ground to prevent any future tragedy.
By hiring another family member into the same unchanged conditions, both sides of the bargaining table are sending him/her to the same death squad. In other words, management and union (and others stakeholders such as the media) have taken the wrong approach and priorities.
The slogan of reforms in general has been going for years in developing countries including reforms related to workplace safety in most industries but no substantial results have been felt on the ground as safety remains the overlooked piece of the picture. This brings us to two scenarios: Either the lack of awareness regarding the importance of safety characterizes most of developing countries or the approach to converting these slogans into concrete and manageable results has been inefficient.
I believe that keeping the level of consciousness high and the public opinion alerted about the importance of safety and preserving lives in the workplace remains the center of the issue and should be the driving force behind any potential change in approaching the matter the right way. As none of the participants in the talk show presented reliable safety figures, the absence of factual evidence created an appeal to emotion-based arguments and debate (argumentum ad passiones). Establishing the means and tools to properly track safety accidents within public and private workplaces would be the place to start.
This case among others related to developing countries problems and the wrong approach that has been taking place to tackle them are one of too many examples that cripple those countries economies. The perspective stakeholders took to addressing the problem was based on diversion from long term and sustainable solutions and has shaped a mentality and a working culture to be based on a tolerance to mediocre conditions and low standards with no consideration to the human live or to the real cost of unsafe workplaces.
In my opinion, this poor mentality is one of the biggest obstacles preventing the unlocking of the potential of developing countries' economies as it stands strong against the belief in the value of the individual in shaping the destiny of the group.
Olfa Hamdi is an international project management expert. She was born and raised in a mining region in Tunisia, surrounded by the area’s economic and social conflicts. Olfa has studied and worked in three different continents. She holds a Master of Science in Engineering from Ecole Centrale de Lille, and a Master of Science in Capital Projects' Management from The University of Texas at Austin and a graduate degree in alternative dispute resolution from Texas School of Law.