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While Morocco boasts a global competitive advantage in the manufacturing of fishery products, nationally processing about 70% of coastal captured fish and exporting 85% of fish products to 100 countries in five continents; the reality of fish canning factories in the country conceals tragic and shameful labour rights violations, putting in question the content of agreements signed by an industry which supports more than 30% of the country’s population.
Agadir: The dark side of canning
It wasn’t easy to launch an investigation into the state of female workers in fish canning factories in the city of Agadir South of Morocco (548 km away from the capital of Rabat), where 12 fish manufacturing factories are based.
The painful memory of two consecutive traffic accidents that resulted in the deaths of 26 female workers in these factories, between May and August 2019, is still fresh in the minds of the residents of the area. There are also the cruel work conditions they endure, which have been described by female workers as “inhumane”.
At 6:00 a.m., we arrived at Tadarat neighbourhood, where the bus carries female workers to fish canning factories in the area of Anza 10 km away. The slopes are rough, and frost envelops the place, as does pitch-black darkness. Here, you can only hear the footsteps and howls of wild dogs.
From a distance, we caught a glimpse of people approaching. The dim street lights don’t help in distinguishing them. Trucks and buses are parked along the sides of the streets, with their lights off. Bodies of masked women begin to appear. Their only distinguishable feature is stolen and hesitant glances from underneath their masks and the blankets wrapped around their shoulders to keep them warm. Some wear the blankets for “reverence”, others to hide their identities from curious eyes.
In her fifties, Fatima is one of those women with bewildered eyes and damaged hands that hot fish water had withered in one of the 12 fish canning factories in Anza. She sat on a big rock at the bus stop looking at the approaching bus that will take her to work. She used her remaining few minutes to speak to us about the “cruel work conditions,” as she describes them, in one of the biggest factories in the area, which exports most of its cans to the European market (about 47 percent) followed by the African market (37 percent).
Fatima says that she -along with 3300 of her colleagues who work in the factories in Anza- makes minimum wage as a part-timer, taking home 1250 dirhams a month in return for working 10 hours a day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. “Even though we work in fish canning factories, and our craft is in our hands, and for a company that exports its goods and makes millions of dirhams in profit, we have no legal status and weren’t registered in the National Social Security Fund until 2001. You can imagine how much of our pension we have lost as we near retirement age,” says Fatima as she wipes her forehead. She says poverty and life’s cruelty drove her to this work. She lives day to day, supporting her family of two sons and a disabled husband.
She must endure long working hours, a dangerous commute to work, and other difficulties that accompany being a “ninja” in a canning factory. The moniker comes from the dress they wear which only reveals the eyes. She adds, “We leave our homes everyday while reading Quran for protection, praying to God to return home safe to our children.” Fatima stresses that for fish canning factories, a worker’s soul is worth less than a “fly’s wing”, even if their work generates big profits. These women are left fending for themselves on the road while riding old and unmaintained buses to work.
Fatima says she was in a traffic accident last April that resulted in her breaking her wrist and losing her neighbour and friend Sanaa, a young woman in her thirties. Labour union activist Ahmad Raji confirmed this, adding that these accidents should be classified as “work-related injuries according to Section 4 of Article 18.12, especially when considering that the women were on a bus that transports them between their homes and workplace. This is in accordance with a contractual agreement between the fish canning and the transportation company. But these companies have evaded legal responsibility for more than seven similar accidents during the last few months of 2019, which led to the death of 26 female workers.”
Fatima, a woman with damaged hands that hot fish water had withered in the fish factory, says: “We take home 1250 dirhams a month (about 120 euros) in return for working 10 hours a day for a company that exports its goods and makes millions of dirhams in profits. Even then, we weren’t registered in the National Social Security Fund until 2001, and lost years of our pension.”
The labour union activist described the working conditions of women working in fish canning as catastrophic. “Even though they make minimum wage for 44 hours of work per week, the way they’re transported in buses is undignified. More than 70 women are stacked in those beat-up buses, which drive through bumpy roads full of steep slopes and curves. This is why these accidents are frequent here… How long will the state ignore this situation?” he wonders.
A journey of terror… and harassment
At the bus station, we also met Zainab, who was leaning against the dimly lit street light wearing two ornate pyjama tops over each other, thick pants, and three pairs of socks. At 35, her schooling in Geography didn’t help her outstep the geography of her fate at the fish canning factory. With great sadness, she describes how she wakes up every morning at sunrise to make lunch for her son, whom she leaves with her neighbour, then walks at dusk for 15 minutes in a barren land. The Moroccan government’s surprising decision to remain on Day Light Saving Saving time (GMT +1) all year round has gravely affected the women working in this industry, as they find themselves having to leave to work before sunrise.
Zainab feels that the road she takes alone to get to the bus stop “is even longer” at this morning hour. As she walks, she recites what she can of the Quran to protect her from street bandits. She’s had many encounters with them before under the threat of cold weapons. “They definitely won’t find anything to rob from a woman going to work in a factory, carrying no more than 20 dirhams (2 euros). But the terror of encountering them still can’t be described”. She stresses that dangers don’t stop at the bus station or on the bus. Even inside the factory, some women face harassment, specifically single and divorced women. The harassers are often their bosses or direct supervisors, meaning, those who have power over them. Sometimes, the harassment comes from their male counterparts. “The woman is the weakest link,” Zainab says, “But I can tell you candidly, that by accepting the situation and succumbing to the wills of harassers, or not having enough courage to publicize their experience or file complaints against harassers, women become part of the problem.” However, Zainab adds that workers in this industry hide these cases because they’re afraid of losing their jobs, which is why they succumb to these practices for lack of other work opportunities in the area. Work at the factory doesn’t require a certificate or a diploma - only a “good reputation”. Gossip travels fast between factories and no one wants to hire a worker who rebelled against her manager or employer, even if she was justified in doing so. For them, she’s just a “troublemaker”.
Half an hour passes slowly and a loud, worn-down bus approaches, like a jet plane from an old documentary about World War II. 45 women and 22 men fill the bus which takes them slowly to the factory where the boss awaits with an attendance sheet for them to sign. They quickly go to a changing room to change into their blue uniforms and wear the plastic gloves that are supposed to protect their hands from the hot oil used in canned fish or manually descaling fish.
Traffic accidents are recurring between old trucks carrying factory workers on bumpy and poorly lit roads. Every year, dozens lose their lives in these accidents or suffer from debilitating injuries. While legally, these accidents should be classified as work-related injuries. Since women are commuting to and from the workplace, they are entitled to compensation as contractually stipulated in an agreement between the fish canning and the transportation companies.
Malika is one of 30 women who work in the department of descaling fish at the factory. She says that the deep lines on her coarse hands show what she’s been through 12 years of work for a handful of dirhams. She adds that the work in this department is the toughest and most of its workers are women because they can clean and scale fish with precision and care. Malika says, “Employers prefer that women descale the fish because they are cleaner, more thorough, and they have sound work ethics. We take off clumsy plastic gloves when cleaning the fish to prepare it for canning. In the canning department, most of the workers are men as the job doesn’t require any special skills.” While showing us her swollen fingers, she continues, “Look! One moment a fish thorn stings you, another moment, the hot oil burns you, but what difference does it make? The only thing that employers care about is that you get the job done professionally, without saying ‘ouch’, or complaining about the pain in your back that stays hunched 10 hours a day.”
When asked about the wage gap between male and female factory workers, Malika says, “That’s not true. Everyone makes the same salary which averages between 1200 and 1400 dirhams monthly (120 euros), depending on work hours and the season. Most of them are registered with Social Security and those with children under two can access child care - after 50 dirhams (4.5 euros) are deducted from their monthly salary.
Safi: Another side of the same suffering
Since the 1930s, the fish preservation industry in Morocco witnessed great growth. This cumulative industry experience has given the country a global competitive edge in terms of both the quality and the quantity of the produce. Morocco is one of two of the largest global exporters of pilchard sardines. It has 47 manufacturing units for this activity most of them based in Safi (20 units) and Agadir (12 units), employing 36,700 people who produce more than 300 tons per day .
Safi, which is more than 331 km away from the capital of Rabat, is known for its marine activity by the sheer number of fish canning factories across the Atlantic coast. Some of these factories are still operational, while others have been completely lifeless and abandoned. In Safi, the fish canning industry began as early as 1930. It has grown and flourished, reaching its peak at 130 manufacturing units that export sardines, anchovies, mackerel and other fruits of the sea. At times, these factories were even used to can agricultural produce such as tomatoes, apricots, and capers (a perennial plant that Morocco is known for producing and exporting. It’s an appetizer that is also used to treat infections of the digestive system). The sector employed more than 30,000 workers, technicians and administrators, in addition to supporting other related industries such as fisheries, transportation, and trade. The female workers called this era ‘afsa, which means “prime time” in the colloquial Moroccan dialect.
Some female workers face harassment, whether they are single or married. The harassers are often their bosses or direct supervisors, meaning, those who have power over them. Women hide these cases because they’re afraid of losing their jobs in an area that offers no other work opportunities.
The canning industry in the city, despite all that it offers, hasn’t witnessed a dramatic development either technically or in terms of product quality.
The industry was shaken after the imposition of new market rules by the European Union in the 1990s, mostly related to quality control specifications. Because of high levels of pollution in the water and the migration of sardine fish southwards, Sardine production from Safi port declined. Factories had to transport the fish from desert ports further south, which in turn raised transportation costs, eventually leading to the shutting down of most factories. More than 20,000 employees were laid off in the last few years of the 1990s.
Safi used to house 70 fish canning factories, and food manufacturing companies of “kwano” (sardine paste), and capers. With the declared depression and the depletion of fish stocks along the coast, that number shrunk to 28 fish canning factories this year, three of which were sardine paste factories, 19 fish canning factories, and two specialized in producing capers. Today, fish canning factories only employ 5197 workers, 481 of whom are full-timers: 404 men and 77 women. The number of seasonal workers in the fish canning factories in Safi city is estimated at 4716, all of them women. They are hired by 5 struggling companies, some of which have merged to survive the crisis according to data provided to us by the Ministry of Economic Inclusion, Small Businesses, Employment and Skills.
Pale faces covered too soon in wrinkles, and hesitant eyes carried by hunched backs from too bending over too much. This is the sad tableau painted by women workers in fish canning, whether in Agadir or here in Safi. Some of them are in the prime of their youth, some seniors, and some minors, but all of them waiting at an early hour for a rickety truck that will stack them and carry them to the fish canning factories. It’s the exact same image in two different cities that are more than 314 km apart.
The women try to force a smile as they sing a mélange of Arabic and Berber songs, mixed with ululations as a way to pick themselves up in the morning in order to face a harsh life that made them work hard for a daily wage of 6-8 dirhams an hour. Sometimes they are paid per box of fish, dubbed “Tonnage” or “Brakah”. The returns made by each truck of produce determines their daily wage.
Work hours stolen from female workers
Saeeda, an alias, was walking hurriedly while carrying a plastic bag with plain bread and an orange inside it - the work day’s only meal. She was rushing to catch the bus. She is a daily wage worker in a fish canning factory in Safi, which is why she tries to make sure she is on the front lines in the truck that carries workers to the factory. She has to guarantee she will make at least a full day’s wage, even if she works longer hours than the legal limit of hours. She makes 1200 dirhams a month or 120 euros paid once at the end of the month, unlike others who get paid bi-weekly.
“Employers prefer that women descale the fish because they are clean and thorough, in addition to having sound work ethics. We take off our clumsy plastic gloves to clean the fish to prepare it for canning. In the canning department, most of the workers are men as the work doesn’t require any specialized skills.”
Saeeda tells us about the backhanded ways of “stealing work hours” in Safi’s fish canning factories. She makes 18 dirhams for every box she packs of sardine tins. To calculate daily wages, the employer multiples the number of boxes full of sardine tins and divides it by the total number of daily wage workers. For example: if on a given day 1000 boxes are produced, the total of 18000 dirhams is divided by the number of factory workers, which could reach up to 400, and each worker will take home 45 dirhams which is again divided by 10.70 dirhams (the hourly wage in the food manufacturing sector since 2007 according to Moroccan law). In this way, Saeeda is only getting paid for four hours and a few minutes, whereas she may have actually worked for 6 or 8 hours.
Saeeda says that the working conditions in the factory are “poor”. She and her colleagues in the descaling department are forced to endure low temperatures at work in the summer and the winter, which makes them more susceptible to back pain and rheumatism, which she’s had for some time. The cooling system “preserves the fish and drains our health,” as she puts it.
A longstanding agreement the workers “haven’t heard of”
In March of 2009, a collective agreement was signed by the local Moroccan Workers Union and an association representing canning manufacturers in Safi (Business owners who are locally dubbed “Patrona” from the French patron) to resolve the issue of family allowance, as stipulated in decree issued in July 2008 (Article 2). However, and even though the aforementioned agreement was signed more than 10 years ago, it has not had any tangible impact on the lives of female workers. Most of them don’t know anything of this agreement which is automatically renewed every 3 years after both parties have signed it (by a union representative from the Moroccan Workers Union and one from the Union Chamber of the food canning association in Safi).
Those women try to force a smile as they sing a mélange of Arabic and Berber songs, mixed with ululations to cheer themselves up in the morning. In Safi’s factories, they are paid per fish box. Dubbed “Tonage” or “Brakah”, the system costs workers lost wages for long working hours.
The aforementioned agreement aimed to address the Family Allowance Act, which only covers workers making at least 60% of minimum wages per month. A daily wage worker in a canning factory ends up making less than minimum wage, as the actual numbers of hours worked is not disclosed. Depending on the manufacturing job, the legal minimum wage varies between 800 and 1200 dirhams a month. This is how thousands of workers couldn’t benefit from “family compensation” services until early 2020.
A union against the workers
At 61 years old, Halima, who used to work as a supervisor, or “kabraneh”, says that joining a union has become mandatory in fish canning factories. “They still impose on the workers which syndicate to join. If a worker refuses, they lose their job. The union representative has a preagreement with the employer.” Halima refers to a nationally popular syndicate which has monopolized worker representation in Safi’s fish canning factories for more than 25 years. “Before a new worker enters the factory floor, she has to visit the worker syndicate’s base office.”
Our trip between the cities of Agadir and Safi ends, but the suffering of thousands of workers continues. Behind the exterior giant buildings housing fish canning factories in Morocco, is a daily living hell for thousands of workers, and a reality that is particularly difficult for women workers.
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Translated from Arabic by Serene Husni
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 17/03/2020