GFI, in partnership with the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Italian Ministry of Development and Cooperation (IDC), and the Tunisian Association for Management and Social Stability (TAMSS), held a conference in Tunis that brought together government and civil society stakeholders to present the results of GFI’s Tunisia Inclusive Labor Initiative (TILI) and discuss integrating Tunisia’s informal sector into the formal economy.
TUNIS, Tunisia – Economists, Government Ministers, Members of Parliament, activists, professors, and concerned citizens joined together in Tunis this past week to review the progress of GFI’s Tunisia Inclusive Labor Initiative (TILI) and chart the next steps toward integrating Tunisia’s informal sector into the formal economy. Held on March 19, the Informal Employment in Tunisia at the Heart of the Social and Economic Development Plan conference provided an opportunity for thought leaders to review and debate progress on Tunisia’s economic growth and the role that the informal sector may play in the nation’s economic and social development.
Convening less than twenty-four hours after the attack on Tunisia’s Bardo Museum, the conference opened with a moment of silence in solidarity with the victims of the attack. Opening statements from the conference’s hosts, GFI, ILO, IDC and TAMSS, all recognized the tragedy and pledged to continue working to develop Tunisia’s economy and democracy in the face of terrorism.
Following the opening statements, the ILO’s Frederic Lapeyre—a specialist on informal economies—presented research conducted by the ILO since 2002 on the informal economy. His research found that 42-50% of Tunisian workers are in the informal economy, with 36% of young Tunisians in the informal economy. According to ILO research, the informal sector in Tunisia is highly concentrated in rural areas, and a large proportion of informal work is done in the service and construction industries. Mr. Lapeyre presented a number of conclusions from the ILO’s research, including the determination that formal sector growth in Tunisia is presently insufficient to fully incorporate the informal sector.
Mr. Lapeyre’s presentation was succeeded by the first of two expert panels. The panel, “The Extent of the Informal: Approaches, Definitions, Measures, and Perspectives”, featured experts on informality, including GFI’s Founder and President, Karen Tramontano. Ms. Tramontano was joined by Mr. Lapeyre, representatives from Tunisia’ largest trade and employer unions (UGTT and UTICA, respectively), and Ezzedine Saidane, a founder and former CEO of the Arab Banking Corporation, Tunisia. The panelists discussed emerging definitions and approaches to informality, and Ms. Tramontano shared insights on GFI’s experience addressing informality in Tunisia and Guatemala. Much of the conversation centered on ensuring that informality is not understood purely as a criminal act, but rather as a means by which society makes up for gaps in the formal economy. The panel agreed that in order to address informality, all stakeholders must be brought to the table and given an opportunity to share their experience and inform future economic policies and regulations. Further, panelists praised Tunisia’s new constitution for its strength in mandating democracy and free expression, but decried it for its limits on business and the economy. Soulef Ksontini, a Member of Parliament from the Ennahdha Party, who was also in attendance, agreed that reforms need to occur in order to improve Tunisia’s economy and address the informal sector.
The second and final panel, “Informal Employment Among Young People and Women: Presentation of Local Experiences and International Support to the Transition to the Formal Economy” featured GFI’s Tunisia Country Director, Asma Ben Hassen. She was joined by Tunisia’s Directors General of the Ministries of Finance and Employment, as well as the Director of Tunisia’s Labor Inspectorate, the Director General of the Technical Center of Mechanical and Electrical Industries, and a representative from the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). This panel included presentations on two projects that worked with informal workers to transition them to the formal economy: the TILI project and a program implemented by GIZ to formalize waste pickers. Aicha Karrafi, the Director General of the Ministry of Finance, also introduced a new initiative from the ministry that would aim to certify businesses and educate consumers on the importance of supporting the growth of the formal economy by purchasing from certified, formal businesses. This initiative also may include a flat tax for small businesses, to make paying taxes simpler and encourage formalization, according to Ms. Karrafi. Questions and debate from the panelists and audience members focused on the appropriate role of government and civil society in regulating the informal economy. One audience member, a woman who worked as an artisan in a handicraft village in El Kef, recounted for the audience how she worked with the TILI program to formalize her activity and gain access to social security and labor protection from the government.
Throughout the event, audience members repeatedly interjected to insert their opinions or expertise in the debate, and there was a palpable sense of purpose among the participants in the conference. In implementing the Tunisia Inclusive Labor Initiative, GFI strived to push the issue of transitioning informal workers to the formal economy into the national agenda. With the success of this conference, it is apparent that the TILI team is meeting that goal.