Tunisia’s textile and garment manufacturing is currently focused on the coastal towns of Monastir and Sfax, creating labour supply and cost challenges.
All PostsAs a result, the CEO and founder of workwear garment producer Walkman Group, Tarek Haj Ben Ali, whose company is based in Sousse, north of Monastir, welcomes government incentives “to open new factories in Tunisia’s less developed regions.”
This includes exemption from certain taxes and tariffs and, most significantly, payment of workers’ CNSS (Caisse Nationale de Sécurité Sociale) social security contributions.
One company that has had success opening two factories in the interior is high-end denim company Sartex, a supplier to major European brands.
Sartex is running new factories in Tozeur, which is close to the Tunisian Sahara and employs 800 workers, and another near the holy city of Kairouan in Tunisia’s interior, with 400 employees.
The ability of companies to access lower labour costs in such areas is important given that the Covid-19 crisis has hit Tunisia’s textile and garment manufacturing sector very hard.
“The textile and garment sector counts 1,600 enterprises employing around 160,000 people, [but] “following the Covid-19 crisis we have seen the closure of some 60 companies and laid off 4,000 members of staff,” Haj Ali told Just Style.
However, with the end of the pandemic in sight, he says there is “a renewed interest from [European] clients in near sourcing, and Tunisia’s responsiveness and ability to produce small orders are assets for Tunisia, so there are many opportunities to be seized.”
Moreover, Tunisian companies are also looking to meet demand for sustainable products by investing in minimising the environmental impact of manufacturing, boosting social responsibility and increasing circular economy/textile recycling standards – all of which chimes with new smaller plants located in areas of higher unemployment, such as Tunisia’s interior.
That said, and despite the government assistance, establishing new plants in non-industrial areas is not easy.
Haithem Bouaglia, a member of the executive bureau of the Tunisian Textile and Garment Federation FTTH (Fédération Tunisienne du Textile et de l’Habillement), told Just Style: “The real problems lie in the lack of clarity in the law and regulations, and also the heaviness of bureaucratic processes.”
The managing director of Tunicotex, which makes apparel in Nabeul, on the coast near the capital Tunis, he adds there is unnecessary regulation from Tunisia’s national bureaucracy, which remains wedded to complexity and paper documents.
Haj Ali notes that while government officials are willing to step in and problem-solve, start-up factories have faced real financial issues. “The real problem has been the payment of employees’ social security dues, it hasn’t happened,” he told Just Style.
Layers of complication
Companies wishing to establish new production bases cannot simply apply for planning permission to build new factories and meet compliance regulations. Instead, to create each new factory the parent company must set up an entirely new company to run the factory. This adds more layers of complication, such as separate accounting systems and bank accounts.
Haj Ali says recent political instability has worsened the situation. “We have had so many different ministers of industry in the past years.”
However, on a positive note he adds: “Those who have succeeded have been able to develop innovation capacities and above all a diversification of their customer base and market.”
Bouaglia says the FTTH and its members are trying to negotiate with the government to clarify regulations to ease the opening of new factories.
Haj Ali says the government needs to take these requests seriously, because the current incentives are often not enough to allow clothing and textile companies to take advantage of Tunisia’s well educated unemployed workforce in the regions.
“It requires the establishment of an ecosystem favourable to investment and above all a modern and efficient infrastructure.”
Just Style approached the ministry of industry, energy and mines, but it was unable to comment.