Middle Class Factory: The (Partial) Privilege of Industrial Labor in Tunisia
By André Weißenfels
In the south of Tunis, around 450 Tunisians work at an offshore French electronics factory. Even though the majority of them work on the shop floor and have what is traditionally called “working class” jobs, they consider themselves to be middle class. This article argues that their feeling of being middle class is based on their socio-economic “middle” position inside Tunisian society and inside global production chains. It further shows that this “middle” position is the result of the relative privilege that organized industrial labor has enjoyed in Tunisia’s postcolonial development project. Finally, the article calls for a careful examination of the economic, social and political position of industrial workers in postcolonial countries, with a particular eye toward their respective development projects.
The factory of CERAT is located in a southern suburb of Tunis. The 450 Tunisians working at CERAT produce electronic parts for a French mother firm. It is the year 2019. Inside the factory, Aymen M. (29 years old), a warehouse worker, provides the production lines with material from the warehouse. Aymen M. has been working at CERAT since 2011 and has not considerably improved his position even though he has a BA degree in multimedia and is overqualified for his job. His monthly wage amounts to 750 Tunisian Dinars (TDN), roughly 220 Euro (EUR). I once asked him how he had imagined his life ten years ago:
When I was studying, I expected that I was going to work in the field of my studies, that my salary will be equal to my labor, I imagined a lot of things, I expected a lot of things in my life, but when you bump into reality … [pause].
While Aymen M. is pushing his cart through the shop floor, he passes by Mohamed L., the quality manager of a production line. Aymen M. greets him and makes a little joke about Mohamed L.’s favorite soccer team having lost last Friday. Mohamed L. (30 years old) has a BA degree in physics and has been working at CERAT since 2016. Like Aymen, he started in the warehouse, but got promoted to his current job after six months. In this position, he earns around 1100 TDN (roughly 325 EUR) a month. Mohamed L. is in a quality management meeting at a “Quick Response Quality Concern” board (Fig. 1) with Soufian A. who, as the maintenance manager for the whole plant, holds one of the highest positions at CERAT. Soufian A.’s salary is more than 3000 TDN a month (roughly 900 EUR). He is 38 years old, has been working at CERAT since 2008 and has held many different positions inside the factory to arrive at his current job. He knows that he earns more than the vast majority of his colleagues:
My case is not representative salary-wise, out of the 450 employees of CERAT. I’m part of the managerial committee of CERAT, so I’m in the higher echelon.
While the three men live considerably different lives, they – like all of their colleagues at CERAT – consider themselves to be “middle class”. Yet, while Soufian A. has moved to Tunis from Bekalta, owns a car, is married and pays rent for two flats, Aymen M. still lives with his family in Fouchana (Fig. 2) and is struggling to get married because he does not earn enough money. This is why he opened a new side business where he breeds animals to sell at the local market. Mohamed L. also wants to marry eventually. However, for now he enjoys a bachelor’s lifestyle of going to pubs and, on special occasions, even night clubs in Gammarth, filled with Tunisian hipsters and white expats. Like Aymen M., Mohamed L. is trying to set up his own business, selling furniture his father made. When I asked him about the reason for his decision to start it at this moment in his life, he answered:
It’s financial. I can’t do what I want with just my salary. I can’t get my own car, and beautiful house [sic.], and get married with just my salary. I can’t do anything.
Employees at CERAT know about the differences in lifestyles as well as the differences in salaries among the work force. Yet, when I asked them which class they belonged to, they considered themselves (and often the others) to be middle class. This goes for both employees in management positions as well as employees who work on the shop floor and do what one would usually consider “working class” jobs. Here is the puzzle: How do workers in a Tunisian electronics factory come to consider themselves as middle class? To complicate the matter further, most employees’ lives do not match their own description of a middle class life. One response to this conundrum would be to assume that the Tunisians working at CERAT are not “really” middle class but only imagine themselves to be: It is because the employees at CERAT aspire to the same things (not because they have those things) that they feel to be part of the middle class. However, another explanation, which I will examine in more depth in this article, is that employees at CERAT are right: Even though they do working class labor, they represent the socio-economic middle of Tunisian society.
World Bank Data determines the lower middle income (measured against the GNI per capita) in Tunisia as 2176 USD per year, which amounts to a monthly income of roughly 530 TDN per month. According to these statistics, the middle income lies around 1362 TDN (around 400 EUR) per month and the upper middle income at about 2009 TDN (around 600 EUR) per month. The minimum wage for non-agricultural jobs in Tunisia is set at around 2 TND per hour for full time employment (40 hours per week), which amounts to a monthly salary of around 350 TDN (roughly 100 EUR). Thus, the employees at CERAT statistically belong to the socio-economic middle of Tunisian society. On this basis, I argue that, in Tunisia, industrial labor has been a privileged contractual form of employment, at least in comparison to other forms of labor. While labor at CERAT is surely being exploited and most employees do not earn enough to lead what they consider to be a good life, they also know that they are privileged in comparison to many other parts of Tunisian society. This (partial) privilege is closely connected to the history of the Tunisian postcolonial state-building project and the ideas of industrial development that pervaded it.
After independence in 1956, the Tunisian government under Bourguiba had its hands full with uniting the different parts of Tunisian society as a nation. This process was based on including formerly marginalized parts of society into a nation building project. Particularly, this involved modern civic middle classes (teachers, lawyers, doctors, public officials, etc.), middle peasants, and organized labor represented through the UGTT, the Tunisian General Labor Union. However, the process of unifying the nation also contained forms of exclusion, coercion, and violence. The specter of a socialist revolution was looming and in 1955 and 1956, the fellagha, anti-colonial freedom fighters under the leadership of Salah Ben Youssef, rebelled against French military presence and the Bourguibist wing of the Neo-Destour party. Bourguiba’s supporters and French troops, in their turn, broke up the rebellion in a series of bloody military operations.
In such a tumultuous transitional phase, “development” provided the new government with a strong narrative for national unity. It was portrayed as a project that society as a whole would profit from. Up until the 1980s, governmentally supervised newspapers would remind people that their own class interests were detrimental to the development efforts of the nation as a whole and that they should think in national rather than in class terms. However, if we look closely at the developmental ideas and the realities, we can see that a large part of Tunisian society was absent from this process – namely, agricultural workers and family farmers. Their working techniques, knowledge, and ways of life were not part of how the Tunisian state imagined a developed society. They were neither part of the aspired future nor of the negotiation process about that future. Development, so much was clear, was not agricultural but industrial.
At the time, the success of the Soviet “great leap forward” made centrally-planned large-scale industrialization the ultimate technique of development in circles of development researchers, experts, and politicians. Thus, the Tunisian government opted for a form of development based on industrialization. To be clear, the rural parts of Tunisia would be included in the development project, but only on the terms of industrialization: not as an active partner but as a “traditional” sector and region that had to be modernized and made useful to the nation’s wider industrial development. Thus, in contrast to the inclusive rhetoric of the government, Tunisia’s development project excluded large parts of society, both conceptually and in practice.
Naturally, the development strategies of the Tunisian government have changed over time. However, a bias towards so-called “modern” forms of labor and against “traditional” rural ways of living and working can be observed throughout its postcolonial history. This has nurtured a regional marginalization of the inner parts of Tunisia. During an early policy of import substitution industrialization in the 1960s, the government tried to industrialize the countryside – with little success. The 1970s saw a change in Tunisia’s development policy: Development, now, was to be achieved through export and (to a certain extent) private investment. This strategy benefited mostly the urban coastal regions with their established commercial infrastructure and their access to harbors. Industry remained a central part of this export-oriented development strategy, but this time it was privately funded and smaller-scale industry that blossomed. Even as structural adjustment policies (the condition for an IMF loan in 1986) were gradually put into practice during the late 1980s and 1990s, the UGTT still managed to negotiate a deal with the Tunisian employer’s organization (UTICA) and the government, which strengthened the position of employees with unlimited contracts while, on the other hand, giving in to legalizing short-term employment. The Tunisian postcolonial development project started by including formerly excluded parts of society (modern occupations and organized labor), but gradually excluded growing parts of society. Nevertheless, industrial labor remained, to a certain degree, part of the Tunisian development project. This is an important reason why (some) industrial workers in Tunisia represent the socio-economic middle of society.
Being socio-economically in “the middle”, however, does not necessarily mean to be middle class. The imaginary of middle classness for most employees at CERAT refers to a global lifestyle that requires more resources than they actually have. Middle class, as Samuli Schielke has argued, is an imagined state that is better than the societal average and reserved for a very small and privileged strata of society. In this case, people who are not materially middle class identify as the latter because it is “a promise, a pressure, and a claim”. In a similar way, at CERAT, being middle class often appears as an aspiration more than an actual status. Nevertheless, comparing themselves to others, employees at CERAT are also aware of what they already have, as opposed to middle class as an “aspiration”. They told me how working at CERAT is much more pleasant and better paid than other jobs. Some of them compare their work to another branch of the French mother firm in China and what they know about it: The Chinese factory produces faster but with a lower quality and the Chinese workers get paid less than they do.
When employees at CERAT assess these comparisons, they mostly conclude that they are comparatively well off. This creates a tension, as at the same time they feel stuck and unable to finance what they consider to be a decent middle class life. Employees regularly expressed this ambiguous sentiment of being privileged and stuck at the same time. It is an accurate expression of the ambiguous position they occupy in a postcolonial development project that might have held a privileged position for industrial labor but overall did not deliver on its promises to provide what the government called the “the affluence of people”. Employees at CERAT represent the socio-economic middle of society, yet they are not middle class in the way they imagine it. Nevertheless, they understand themselves as middle class because the latter also represents a set of sensibilities and aspirations that they all share.
From this position, most of them have mixed feelings about the revolution of 2010. While they like the idea of freedom of speech and less corruption, many also blame the revolution for the economic hardship they experience, especially the inflation. They feel like they have lost more than they have gained from the revolution. As Mohammed L. put it once while we were having beers in a pub: “Bouazizi ruined us all”. Around one and a half years later, I asked him if he thought his salary was appropriate for his work:
No! Not with the way – How do I explain it, nowadays, everything is more expensive. So, 500 TND ten years ago were better than a thousand today since everything more than doubled its price. So, 500 TNDs ten years ago, I mean before the revolution, of course.
When Mohammed L. thinks about his financial problems, he takes into consideration primarily the national economic situation rather than the size of his salary. This is the prevalent sentiment at CERAT: The particular “middle” position of the employees – both inside the national development project and inside global production chains – seems to defuse conflicts between capital and labor. This reinforces an argument which Hadas Weiss has recently made: Middle class functions as an “ideology” that makes labor compliant with capitalist exploitation.
This is not to say that in other regions or other branches, industrial working conditions in Tunisia aren’t much worse than at CERAT. Certainly not every industrial worker belongs to the middle of Tunisian society. Similarly, labor unrests and the UGTT have played an important role in the run-up to the revolution in 2010 and in its aftermath. Nevertheless, my research shows a different reality in which industrial labor is not the “most marginalized” group of Tunisian society and not necessarily the revolutionary subject. But neither is it simply the handmaiden of a capitalist development project. Rather, the political activity of workers seems to depend on their position inside the postcolonial development project: in how far development promises are kept and if they feel they partake in development.
I believe that many postcolonial countries show a social stratification in which (at least parts of) industrial labor can be understood as ultimately privileged in comparison to a bigger fraction of society working in agriculture or low-level services (e.g., shoe polishers, delivery services, sales staff in small shops, garbage collectors). It is useful to situate industrial labor inside the different postcolonial national development projects in order to better understand the social, economic, and political position of industrial workers inside their respective societies as well as inside global capitalist regimes of accumulation. This does not mean to assume that all industrial workers in postcolonial countries are somewhat privileged. It rather means assessing the actual socio-economic position of workers with an eye towards their role in their respective national development projects and towards other subaltern parts of society who might be easily overlooked exactly because they have not been part of the development imaginary. What we have to gain from this is not only a more complete understanding of industrial work but also an important insight into the political action and inaction of workers, helping to answer questions such as: Do they challenge global capitalist accumulation or not, and why? How do they relate to economic and political structures? And what do they think they have to gain or lose from political action?
 All names have been changed for reasons of anonymity.
 Interview with the author, 09.03.2019, author’s trans.
 Interview with the author, 05.03.2019, author’s trans.
 Interview with the author, 03.03.2019.
 For the debate around the middle class as aspiration see: Samuli Schielke, “Living in the Future Tense: Aspiring for World and Class in Provincial Egypt”, in: Carla Freeman/ Rachel Heiman/ Mark Liechty (eds.), The Global Middle Class: Theorizing through Ethnography, Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2012, 31-56.
 Max Ajl, “Development by popular Protection and Tunisia: the case of Tataouine”, Globalizations 16/7, 1215-1231, here 1222.
 Ben Youssef, a former comrade of Bourguiba, was sentenced to the death penalty in 1958, fled to Germany and was assassinated in a hotel in Frankfurt in 1961.
 Max Ajl, Farmers, Fellaga, and Frenchmen: National Liberation and Post-Colonial Development in Tunisia, Dissertation at Cornell University, 2019, 168-185.
 Ajl, Farmers, Fellaga and Frenshmen, 219/244; Eva Bellin, Stalled Democracy: Capital, Labor, and the Paradox of State-Sponsored Development, Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2011 [first published in 2002], 20.
 Stephen J. King, “Economic Reform and Tunisia’s Hegemonic Party: The End of the Administrative Elite”, Arab Studies Quarterly 20/2, 1998, 59-86, here 72.
 Baccar Gherib, Penser la transistion avec Gramsci. Tunisie (2011-2014), Mutuelleville: Éditions Diwen, 2017; Habib Ayeb/ Ray Bush, “Small Farmer Uprisings and Rural Neglect in Egypt and Tunisia”, Middle East Report 272, 2014, 2-10; Ajl, Farmers, Fellaga, and Frenchmen, 2019.
 Bellin, Stalled Democracy, 11-45.
 Christopher Alexander, “Labour Code Reform in Tunisia”, Mediterranean Politics 6/2; 2001, 104-125, here 120.
 King, Economic Reform and Tunisia’s Hegemonic Party, 78-82.
 Schielke, “Living in the Future Tense”, 47.
 Schielke, “Living in the Future Tense”, 34.
 Private meeting with the author, 25.09.2017, author’s trans.
 Interview with the author, 03.03.2019.
 Hadas Weiss, We have never been Middle Class, Brooklyn/London: Verso, 2019, 7; 21-51.
 Amin Allal/ Karine Bennafla, “Les Mouvements Protestataires de Gafsa (Tunisie) et Sidi Ifni (Maroc) de 2005 à 2009: Des mobilisations en faveur du réengagement de l’État ou contre l’ordre politique?“, Revue Tiers Monde 5, 2011; Matt Swagler, “Tunisia: A dictator falls, but what comes next?”, International Socialist Review 76, 2011; Aliriza, What Democracy for Tunisian Workers.
André Weißenfels is a research associate at the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies (Freie Universität Berlin) and a doctoral fellow at the Berlin Graduate School for Muslim Cultures and Societies. His research and teaching focuses on issues of political economy, knowledge-power-problematics and ethnographically sensitive methodology.
Further articles in the Factory Reloaded series on TRAFO:
Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri, Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace, 18 February 2021.
Görkem Akgöz, Spaces of National-Industrial Modernity: Factories and Factory Women in Early Republican Turkey, 5 March 2021.
Citation: André Weißenfels, Middle Class Factory: The (Partial) Privilege of Industrial Labor in Tunisia, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.03.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27376.