TUNIS - Thousands of Tunisian teachers rallied on Wednesday near the prime minister's office to demand better work conditions and higher wages, in an escalation of their protests against the cash-strapped government.
The government is under pressure from international lenders to cut spending and reduce its large budget deficit but also faces public anger over high unemployment, especially among the young, and poverty.
In al-Kasbah Square in central Tunis, the teachers chanted: "We want our rights" and "This is a pen revolution" — an indirect allusion to the first "Arab Spring" revolt that erupted in Tunisia in 2011 and overthrew autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Teachers have been boycotting exams for hundreds of thousands of students for nearly two months, fueling a mood of tension in the North African nation and prompting anxious parents to organize their own demonstrations.
The National Parents' Association has called for a big demonstration this week to protest against the plight of their children, saying they have become hostages in the dispute between the teachers' union and the government.
The teachers' union has asked for salary increases and a reduction in the retirement age, demands the government says are unfair and cannot be met.
The government is also in negotiations with the powerful public sector union UGTT, which has threatened to hold a two-day nationwide strike this month if the government does not accept wage increases for about 670,000 workers.
The UGTT, Tunisia's biggest union, shut schools, universities, ministries and municipalities across Tunisia last month in a similar nationwide strike.
Tunisia's economy has been in turmoil since the 2011 uprising, which was also sparked by anger over unemployment and poverty.
The political turmoil and a lack of reforms have deterred investment sorely needed to create jobs, forcing the government to implement austerity measures in return for loans totaling about $2.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund.