Tunisian Women in Agriculture: Struggle for Protection and Rights

In antiquity, Tunisia was famous for its bountiful granaries; today, the country grapples with a variety of agricultural problems. This directly impacts the working conditions, particularly affecting women .

Farmers in Tunisia struggle with water scarcity and the significantly increased prices of feed and fertilizer. In order to continue making profits, they subject farmworkers to precarious working conditions: social dependencies, insecure employment conditions, and low wages pose a problem, especially for women who make a significant contribution to the country's agriculture.

Due to the exhausted job market in cities and blocked migration routes, they often have no other choice but to accept these circumstances. The origin of these miserable conditions for Tunisian female farmworkers traces back to the country's colonial history.


The economic policy focus on export agriculture increasingly puts small farmers under pressure.

The precarious situation of agricultural workers in Tunisia originates from the export-oriented agriculture established by the French colonial rulers as the cornerstone of colonial economic policy. This led to land expropriations and displacements to gain maximum control over exports and, consequently, achieve the highest possible profit. After gaining independence in 1956, many farmers hoped to reclaim their land. However, the new government under Habib Bourguiba, aiming to industrialize the country through phosphate mines and modern agriculture, showed little interest in small-scale farming structures. As a result, the return of lands to farmers did not materialize, and the government's plans for large-scale agriculture could be implemented more easily. The new reforms were clearly geared towards export agriculture and large-scale farms—a lucrative sector that continued to secure the government's power even after Tunisia gained independence. Olive and date cultivation, primarily for export, became prominent.

In the 1960s and 1970s, socialist modernization efforts led to the establishment of massive cooperatives, de facto causing many small farmers to lose not only their land but also essential production resources such as seeds or harvesting machinery. After the top-down forced collectivization failed in the late 1970s, land was partially returned. However, farmers increasingly struggled to access subsidized seeds and harvesting machinery, and global developments continuously raised prices for feed and fertilizer. The growing competition for water over the years added pressure on farmers, seamlessly transferring onto the shoulders of hard-working farmworkers.

To this day, Tunisian agricultural policy results in impoverishment of the rural population. Previous demands by farmers for reforms to improve living conditions in rural areas have been thwarted politically and internationally due to the existing focus on export. This policy continues to impact the food security of the Tunisian population.


Trapped in Dependencies: Realities of Female Farmworkers

The consequences of failed agricultural policies disproportionately affect rural women, as they are extensively involved in subsistence agriculture (self-sufficient economy without surplus production or monetary transactions) and reproductive work. The latter implies that women play a crucial role in the economic security of the poorest households, as they allocate a significant portion of their income to the nutrition, health, and education of other household members, including children. The financial and material pressure resulting from the expansion of export-oriented agriculture quickly becomes apparent in these areas. According to a 2016 report from the Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources, and Fisheries, rural women constitute 35 percent of all Tunisian women and a substantial 58 percent of the rural workforce. With their labor and contribution to the country's food security, rural women are thus a vital link in the Tunisian agricultural sector.

However, it is precisely the women who receive hardly any protection in the context of their professional employment and are thus trapped in their personal situation. If a family owns land, it is usually transferred to male family members, leaving women without long-term security. A chain of dependencies and a lack of financial resources make it challenging for women to break free from this situation or advocate for their rights.

Due to limited alternatives and high unemployment in cities, coupled with a lack of government support, women in agriculture are often compelled to accept any available wages, especially when their families depend on the income. In addition to low wages, they face disproportionate working hours and concerning contract conditions: exceeding the legal maximum daily working hours of nine hours by up to 13 hours in high temperatures is commonplace. The work is primarily conducted in informal settings, often leaving little to no room for negotiation.


Many female workers lack personal transportation, so-called intermediaries provide transportation and connect women to various agricultural enterprises. In return, they retain a portion of the already meager wages of the female workers. While this might seem like a somewhat fair solution at first glance, it poses problems for the women. Often, transportation is hazardous, as women are usually transported on the bed of old pickups, and both the roads and driving conditions pose particular risks to them. The organization Forum Tunisien des Droits Economiques et Sociaux (FTDES; Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights) recorded 50 fatalities and approximately 700 injured female farmworkers nationwide between 2015 and 2021.


More Protection Without Middlemen? Approaches to a Stalemate

Due to their informal employment, farmworkers are generally denied state protection. An exception is made for those female agricultural workers who do not collaborate with intermediaries: while the use of middlemen is prevalent in northern regions with extensive agriculture, as well as around Kairouan and Sidi Bouzid, agricultural work by women in southern regions and areas characterized by family farming increasingly occurs in a neighborly relationship.

The social ties between farmers and female workers often lead to better working conditions. Farmers benefit from the fact that women working as informal harvest helpers are familiar with the operation and harvesting activities. For the female farmworkers, the advantage lies in not being dependent on transportation, and the neighborly relationship provides more room to negotiate their wages. Additionally, in some regions, there is social security as women are covered through formal employment of a usually male family member.

Nevertheless, a complex web of political, social, and economic dependencies persists, especially for women who, in addition to wage labor, continue to undertake a significant portion of reproductive work, making them more vulnerable to exploitative labor conditions. While neighborhood agreements often promise more protection and often higher wages compared to working with intermediaries, holistic solutions for wage justice and specific protection for female farmworkers are still necessary. This includes contractually regulated employment relationships, minimum wages, and alternative employment opportunities outside the agricultural sector. It is the responsibility of the Tunisian state to strengthen the constitutionally guaranteed right to social security and the protection of women. However, reform of agricultural policy, such as fair prices for agricultural products, is also necessary to ensure sustainable food security. This concerns all trading partners and consumers who benefit from inexpensive export products from Tunisia and thus play a role in the chain of dependencies.

The background information for this article is based on an interview with Dr. Kressen Thyen, University of Bremen.