Written by Julie Delahanty, Executive Director, Oxfam Canada
Driving through Larache in Northern Morocco I was struck by the large-scale modern agricultural feel of the countryside. Travelling frequently throughout Asia and Africa, much of the agriculture in poorer areas is characterized by smallholder farms with a crazy patchwork of land being farmed. In Larache there were rows of berries neatly planted as far as the eye could see. I could have been in Europe or California.
Morocco is a country of inequality. The truth of the region’s poverty lies in those rows on rows of farmland where thousands of poor local women labour in impossible conditions to produce strawberries for the insatiable European market.
I met many of the women working in those farms. Things have improved on some of the farms due to the work of Oxfam in Morocco and our partners, but much of the work continues to be underpaid, degrading, and unregulated. Few women are paid even the paltry minimum wage of 70 Dirham per day (about 7 Euros or 10 Canadian dollars). That is for work of 12 hours or more per day in a country where cost of living didn’t seem cheap – a modest dinner in a reasonable restaurant still cost about $20-$30 Canadian.
In addition to their poor wages, many of the women complained particularly about the transport situation. In the small Mercedes Benz vans that are ubiquitous all over the region, the owners remove the seats and cram 60 women into the vans for sometimes over two hour drives each way to the farms. I still am not sure if that number was an exaggeration, though they all used that figure. It seems impossible that even without seats many people could fit in the vans. But with so many people and no ventilation those trip must be a small hell.
The main vocal complaints by the women workers were about transport, wages, and the lack of contracts or security. But to me, the conditions of work also seemed like something to seriously complain about. The women work 8-12 hours stooped over with a large plastic bucket attached to their back. They lean over to pick the strawberries, depositing them into the bucket on their back. We were told that only women do this work since men aren’t "suited" to stand stooped over for so long.
Equally disturbing, the women are permitted to use the bathroom only once a day. When they become desperate, they receive "the bracelet" ensuring only one woman can be on a bathroom break at a time. I asked about menstruation and the women just shook their heads and said that sometimes if it was a female supervisor they might be able to elicit enough sympathy to go to the toilet more than once a day, but not if it was a man supervising them.
Oxfam is working with partner associations in the region to support the women’s claims for their rights to decent working conditions. On this trip, we met a dynamic young woman named Soukeina Dridab. She left school and began working in the strawberry sector when she was just 12 years old. She has a young two-year old daughter named Hyab and also looks after a younger sister who is still studying. After five years working in the strawberry fields, she began volunteering in the workers’ association as a promoter, going into the village to raise awareness to support the project and women’s participation. Her awareness of her rights as a worker also coincided with increased awareness about her rights as a woman.
Soukeina tells a harrowing story of her marriage at age 14 to a 40 year-old man. Her husband lived in Spain and returned only once every two years so she was forced to live alone with few resources. During their 8-year marriage she saw him only 5 times.
Now working with the workers’ association, Soukeina knows that she made the right choice. She is happy and feels positive about her life possibilities and is grateful that she can see the potential of her future and that of her young daughter’s.
She told me that he abused her throughout their time together and “when he had relations with me, it was brutal, like an animal.” She didn’t understand that violence and marital rape was not normal or acceptable as she hadn’t grown up knowing or understanding what a normal family life was like.
When she began working with the Oxfam partner association she came to understand what it should be like to be in a good relationship. She made the decision to divorce and persevered despite the obstacles, which were many; she had to borrow money and many people tried to stop her, including her family. Now working with the workers’ association, Soukeina knows that she made the right choice. She is happy and feels positive about her life possibilities and is grateful that she can see the potential of her future and that of her young daughter’s.
Soukeina is one woman for whom strawberry fields were not forever. Rather, rights and dignity will forever be hers.