Tunisian authorities arrest bakers’ union chief as bread crisis continues

The arrest comes in the aftermath of the government revoking flour subsidy to 1,500 bakeries amid a severe bread shortage in the country, leading to protests and suspension of production

August 18, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Tunisia bakery union protest
(Photo: Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency)

Tunisian authorities on Wednesday, August 16, arrested the bakeries’ union chief, Mohamed Bouanane, amid an acute bread shortage and union protests in recent weeks. Bouanane, the head of the National Chamber of Bakery Owners, was arrested after allegations were leveled against him of committing crimes, including money laundering and promoting “monopoly and speculation with subsidized foodstuffs.” It is not yet clear if any formal charges have been brought against him. The arrest comes amid an escalating feud between the bakeries’ union and the government over the bread shortage in the country. 

The bread shortage, which has resulted in massive queues in front of bakeries all around the country, is a result of a nationwide shortage of flour caused by a combination of domestic and global factors. The Tunisian economy is struggling, with high inflation and unemployment indicators. Massive government debt and low foreign reserves also drastically limit the government’s ability to procure grain from the international market to shore up its reserves of subsidized flour. The Ukraine-Russia conflict and the rise in global food and grain prices has only added to the problem. 

Additionally, climate change and global warming-related causes including severe drought has also adversely affected production. Reports noted that the harvest this year is expected to be only around six million tonnes, compared to eight million tonnes in previous years, only half of which can be used for the domestic market. In a country which imports roughly 50 to 60% of its grain needs from the international market, the drought and disrupted production is likely to increase this figure significantly in the coming years.

In an effort to tackle the crisis, the government a few weeks ago removed the subsidy on flour that was being provided to about 1,500 privately-owned bakeries which made European-style breads and pastries. Only 3,737 bakeries belonging to another network continued to receive subsidized flour. President Kais Saied also dismissed the head of the Grain Bureau, the institution responsible for supplying local as well as imported grain to the market, accusing him of “monopolizing the distribution of grains and other consumer goods.”

In response to the government’s measure to end the subsidy on flour, the bakeries and their union staged multiple protests and collective actions like sit-ins and rallies in the last few weeks. On August 8, dozens of bakery owners and workers staged a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Commerce to protest the government’s decision. At the time, the now arrested head of the union said that the decision had rendered 18,000 bakery workers jobless as the bakeries were not able to operate without flour. A week prior to that, all 1,500 bakeries affected by the ban had collectively suspended production indefinitely, worsening the bread shortage in the country.