“I didn’t work during the lockdown, [...] I didn’t even leave my house. I eat what I have (nakol li keteballah), watch TV, and sleep. I didn’t receive help [...] it was infuriating (tghaddad't) because wealthy people received help, my brothers received help, and I who am in actual need did not receive any. It felt unfair. I closed my door and didn't go out anymore.” (Interview with Aziza on 13 October 2020.)
In Morocco, the crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated daily difficulties as well as the social and material injustices women agricultural workers already face. Many of them work without a contract or social security and are forced to cope with different forms of social stigma. However, women are integral to the agricultural development of the country; they perform different and often undervalued tasks: transplanting onions, thinning the fruits, weeding, and harvesting - tasks which some farmers and farm managers believe are suited for females. Thanks to their endurance and the various agricultural tasks they carry out, women workers have been crucial to the agricultural production and the agricultural boom the country has experienced in recent decades. This boom is particularly linked to the direction the country has taken by making agriculture a main driver of the national economy, through the various agricultural strategies such as the Green Morocco Plan (GMP), which framed agricultural and rural development from 2008 to 2020. Indeed, in the Gharb-Loukkos region, for instance, the strawberry orchards gradually increased from 100ha in the early 1990s to 3,600ha in 2016-2017 (Harbouze et al., 2019.)
This article uses the COVID-19 pandemic as an entry point to show the socio-economic precariousness of many women farmers and how it was worsened by the pandemic. To this end, we have relied on our decade-long engagement with women agricultural workers; we also carried out telephone interviews since March 2020 with female workers and farmers from the agricultural Saïss Plain, northwest of the country, and from the coastal zone of Gharb and Loukkos, northeast of the country. We start by retracing the emergence of the paid female workforce in Morocco and developing the profiles of women agricultural workers to understand who they are and what pushed them to work in precarious conditions. We then describe the working conditions and the difficulties these women face in general, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. The absence of women agricultural workers in public policy and public discourse prompts us to conclude the article with some recommendations as voiced by women workers in our interviews.
Photo 1: Female farmers weeding onions in the Saïss Plain (Credit: Lisa Bossenbroek)
The emergence of women as an agricultural paid workforce
In Morocco, rural women have always worked. In addition to their household chores (cooking, cleaning, laundry, raising children), they work on the family farm by performing specific tasks such as planting, harvesting, weeding, and working in the barn. However, women were not paid for their work until the 1980s - 1990s. Before that time, as stated in the work of Paul Pascon and Mohammed Ennaji (1985), women were less present, thus “in some regions, such as Haouz, even urban women workers are sought out since women workers are scarce in the countryside due to existing taboos” (p. 58). Today, rural women employed in paid agricultural sector has become common. Nonetheless, taboos and stigmatization of female agricultural work remain, to this today, prevalent in rural society.
While their numbers increased, only a minority of women workers have employment contracts and benefit from social security. The majority works without a contract and social security, and with few opportunities for professional advancement, compared to male workers (Bossenbroek, et al. 2013). Indeed, male workers who accumulate agricultural experience manage to climb the professional ladder and can, more easily, become a “cabran” (a supervisor – in charge of managing and mobilizing workers), a guard (in charge of operating machines) or an intermediary, etc. Women workers rarely have the same opportunity and are even less likely to acquire another specialized professional status in agriculture. They continue to work on various farms, either directly for the farmer or by going to the moquef - a place often located at the edge of small rural centres where all workers gather at dawn to find a job for the day (see photo 2). To get to their workplace, workers are often crammed in large numbers onto open trucks or pick-ups. Transport costs are covered either by the farmer or “cabran” who later deduct a sum from the workers' wages. Disregarding passenger safety and traffic laws have often led to road accidents.
Photo 2: Three workers in a moquef in the Saïss region. (Credit: Lisa Bossenbroek) © Lisa Bossenbroek
In general, when women work directly with the farmer, they earn between 60 and 70 DH (i.e., EUR 5.7 - 6.6) per day. If they find a job through the moquef and the demand for labour is high (depending on the agricultural season), the wages can be higher and reach about 150 to 180 DH (EUR 14.2 - 17), or more. However, finding work through the moquef carries a lot of insecurity. Women, especially older women, do not always find work there, as Aziza, a worker in her sixties, explains: “I come here [to the moquef] every day. I come around 4 a.m. and wait until 10 or 11 a.m. This week, I came every day, but I only worked two days.”
Who are these women “ninjas”?
The way agricultural workers dress has earned them the nickname “ninjas:” their faces are wrapped in a thick scarf, barely showing their eyes. They explain that their clothing is intended to protect them from the sun, dust, and pesticides. but in addition to these practical considerations, many have also admitted that their scarves are there to hide their faces, allowing them to remain invisible and “anonymous.”
Through our interviews, we were able to draw up multiple profiles of these “anonymous” workers. They often come from very modest or poor backgrounds. Many do not have access to land. This mainly results from inequalities in access to land ownership for women, due to certain customs and inheritance practices whereby women receive a smaller share than their brothers or are even sometimes excluded altogether. However, their marital status is quite a different story; there are divorced, widowed, single, and married women. Despite this diversity, the common thread is that most of them are the main breadwinners in their families or share this responsibility with other family members. In either case, the women workers' wages are essential; they are relied upon to provide food, medicine, and to pay the bills and schooling for children.
An invisible and stigmatized workforce
Even though the income of female workers is essential for the survival of their families, their work is neither recognized nor appreciated in society. The traditional image of men as the main providers for their family and women as taking care of their household and raising the children remains prevalent in rural areas. This image is reinforced by most employers, who hire female workers often without employment contracts. The failure to recognize women as the main earners of income also allows employers to pay female workers low wages, often 20-40% less than their male counterparts. This is also justified by the specific activities they carry out, which supposedly need “less strength.” The wages of permanent workers do not differ much from that of day workers. However, permanent workers enjoy other benefits such as job security and social security.
The prevailing traditional image about the roles and responsibilities of men and women in rural areas is reinforced and (re)generated by the rumours and prejudices about women paid workers in the agricultural sector. Farmers or farm managers sometimes refer to women agricultural workers as young, single women with illicit behaviour. A farm manager explains: “When a girl is pregnant, she goes to the moquef to find a job to support her child because she cannot return home. Some girls may become dependent on work in the moquef. They get married for six months and then they divorce but stay in rural centres. They work in the agricultural sector or begin to work as prostitutes - tatltajaâ l-chari3 [literally - she turns to the street].” On other occasions, paid workers have been described as “women who have made farmers lose their minds,” or even as “free” women. Moreover, rural women from more affluent families do not hesitate to make negative remarks about women agricultural workers: “Here, it is shameful "ayb" for a woman to work. Women worked before and we laugh at them because they work with men. If you work with a man, it’ll be said that you're his girlfriend” (Naima, 50).
In this context, it is difficult for rural women who engaged in paid work to combine their income-generating activities with the identity of a virtuous woman. However, they are aware of this situation and skillfully negotiate their behaviours and the public-private boundaries of space to earn an income without losing their integrity as women (Bossenbroek, 2018). For example, they choose to work and travel with neighbours to remain with people they know and extend social control. Others opt to work on farms owned by family or community members to maintain social control without depriving themselves of work. Furthermore, by wearing the veil, they can walk around in public unrecognized.
A precarious situation compounded by pandemic and lockdown
The precariousness of female workers is reflected in structurally low wages, a lack of contracts and social security for most of them, and no guarantee of employment. All this was worsened by the pandemic and the lockdown implemented in Morocco in March 2020 (Bossenbroek and Ftouhi, 2021). In phone interviews during the lockdown, the women agricultural workers explained that job opportunities were scarce: “Before Coronavirus, we used to work every day. Now, we only work three days a week, and sometimes only one day a week. There is no more work because of Coronavirus.” Indeed, because of restrictions on movement, women workers have had difficulty reaching farms and agribusinesses where work is available. Workers were usually transported to farms in open trucks and pick-ups. But, since the lockdown was enforced, the authorities have demanded that the number of passengers per vehicle be reduced to 3-5 people (depending on the size of the vehicle) and to have a permit to travel issued by the local authorities to cross the many police checkpoints located on the various roads. However, since most of the workers we interviewed have no contracts, it is difficult for them to obtain such permits. As a result, their chances of finding work, especially in farms located in municipalities far from their homes, were compromised. Moreover, due to the ban on gatherings, access to the moquefs was denied. Workers who tried to gather in the moquefs said that they were turned away by local authorities or were taken to police stations as Hasna explains: “They took us to the police station several times. They told us: "Gatherings are prohibited, do not get into overcrowded vehicles, you must have a permit to travel, and wearing a mask is compulsory...”
This situation has caused different kinds of problems for women agricultural workers. On the one hand, they have financial problems linked in particular to their inability to pay bills and medication, cover fees of remote schooling for their children, and provide proper meals for their families, as Fdila said: “I was unable to provide my child with the means to follow online courses… I do not have a smartphone… He could not follow the courses broadcast on television either, because ours is broken and I do not have the money to buy a new one.”
On the other hand, women agricultural workers face psychological problems as a result of their inability to meet their needs or those of their families, not to mention the fear of getting contaminated in their workplace and consequently infecting their families as well. Hakima explains: “We lived in fear… We’d say that today the others were infected, tomorrow it is going to be us. There were coronavirus cases in our village, and we were scared after hearing this news...We were terrified, I would wake up scared at night.”
Poor state and social support
After the lockdown was put in place, and although no state financial support specifically targeted women agricultural workers, some women benefited from the Tadamon initiative launched by the State to help vulnerable populations affected by the imposed restriction measures. The initiative sought to provide financial assistance to heads of households working in the informal sector and to vulnerable families. This initiative is funded directly by the “Special Fund for the Management of the COVID-19 Pandemic” launched by King Mohamed VI on 15 March 2020. However, some women workers, particularly those that cannot read or write, were unable to benefit from this aid because they were unable to complete the online application form. In other cases, even when the woman is the main provider, the husband or father-in-law is considered the head of the household, which de facto prevents women from seeking help directly.
On the other hand, several women, or one of their family members, benefited from baskets of basic foodstuff distributed by municipalities or by civil society organisations to vulnerable families when entire villages were quarantined due to the contamination of some of their residents.
The fate of women workers one year after the pandemic
Although the lockdown has been lifted and the restrictive measures were eased, the situation of women agricultural workers has not improved. Even though the moquefs reopened and police checkpoints no longer prevent vehicles from taking workers to the farms, female workers continue to suffer from the consequences of lockdown, as Khadija explains: “… The crisis is not over. Farmers can no longer have the means to bring workers from the moquef and pay them afterwards. Agricultural activity has almost come to a complete halt.” Wary, some farmers have reduced the cultivated areas and offer only low wages, even during peak periods of agricultural activity, for fear of not being able to sell their produce at the end of the season and, thus, incurring financial losses. A worker from the Saïss Plain explains: “Normally, at this time of year, we can negotiate wages of 130, 150, 200 DH per day. But now, we cannot even find a farmer who would agree to pay 50 DH per day. When we ask for a higher wage, they answer that if [they] give [us] more it is as if [they] are sharing [their] profits with [us], because farmers themselves no longer have the means to finance agricultural activities.”
To be able to live through the pandemic, women workers had to take up loans, which they are they are today unable to repay in full, nor are they able to settle unpaid water and electricity bills. that they wanted to settle post-lockdown, remain unsettled.
Political silence around the daily life of women workers and a reserved public discourse
The issue of agricultural workers has never been an exclusive subject of public policy in Morocco. It is part of the Moroccan Labour Law or the country’s agricultural strategies (production stimulation, marketing, sectors, organizations, and cooperatives, etc.). For agricultural workers, the legal minimum wage of 76.70 DH per day is set by law, but the work should be formalized in an employment contract for the works to benefit from social security coverage and a pension plan. However, given that 90% of employment in the agricultural and rural sectors is informal, it becomes clear that agricultural workers are an invisible workforce and do not benefit from their legal rights.
Public debate on the issue of agricultural workers is hardly ever addressed exclusively among decision-makers (parliament, political parties, government, etc.). It is part of respecting the Labour Law for all sectors and involves both ministries of labour and agriculture. It is also important to note that since 70% of farms have a surface area of less than 5 hectares and are family-run, the informality of agricultural work becomes a glaring “reality.” Apart from large agricultural estates, few farms have bookkeeping, which complicates matters of employment, especially with regard to extra seasonal labour. Furthermore, only a few large agricultural estates and operators in the agri-food industry have contracts with their employees.
This also explains the very limited advocacy for agricultural workers before the competent authorities. Rare public debates around women workers in particular only happen after fatal road accidents due to the appalling transport conditions and non-compliance with traffic regulations. This was also the case during the COVID-19 pandemic when some packing stations became epidemic hotspots.
The issue is added to the public agenda through strong media coverage, questions in parliament or union advocacy. For example, following a tragic road incident, the parliamentary group of the Democratic Confederation of Labour sent a written enquiry on the matter to the Minister of Labour and Professional Integration. The Moroccan National Union of Agricultural Workers published a long report on 20 February 2021 describing the difficult conditions experienced by millions of workers in the fields, in agricultural estates, and in packing stations across Morocco. In May 2021, the Minister of General Affairs stated before parliament that “a meeting was held with the ministries of agriculture and labour to draw up new terms of reference for the transport of agricultural workers.”
Civil society also plays an important role in bringing the issue of women agricultural workers onto the public agenda. Several awareness campaigns have been organized. For example, the Group of Young Women for Democracy in the Sous Plain launched the “Youda” digital awareness campaign to raise awareness against domestic violence targeting female workers during the lockdown. In 2008, Oxfam launched an initiative to fight for the rights of women agricultural workers in the red fruit sector (Théroux-Séguin 2016). Although one-off actions and initiatives are undertaken by a few associations and non-governmental organizations, they remain local and with limited reach.
This paper highlights the precarious socio-economic situation of women agricultural workers in Morocco, with a particular focus on the case of female workers in two main agricultural areas of the country: the Saïss and the coastal zone of Loukkos-Gharb. This precariousness was worsened by the pandemic and the ensuing restrictive measures but continues to be completely disregarded from public agricultural policies.
Nonetheless, a glimmer of hope for addressing the precariousness of female workers remains. In September 2021, Morocco held elections and had a change of government. There is hope that the new Generation Green agricultural strategy (2021-2030) could tackle the situation of women agricultural workers head-on. Moreover, following the pandemic crisis, the country instituted generalized social coverage targeting farmers as a priority. If adequately implemented, it should contribute to alleviating the living conditions of the workers.
Given this context of possible change, we would like to share some grievances that women workers have expressed during our decade-long engagement with them and have wished officials would address:
- Establish decent salaries that compensate for the toil they endure, especially by raising the legal minimum wage for the agricultural sector.
- Provide stable and permanent jobs where they will not have to worry daily about finding a job for the day;
- Ensure better work conditions, including through the respect of labour laws, and guarantee the right to social security and retirement;
- Direct state aid to the agricultural sector by favouring employers who respect working conditions;
- Establish bonuses, as is the case with large transport taxis, to allow carriers to renew their old vehicles;
- Foster start-ups and innovations for the networking of agricultural work;
- Benefit from collective projects, within the framework of associations or cooperatives, where they can work together and use their skills, such as a carpet weaving project for example.
In addition, it is essential to go beyond taboos surrounding paid female agricultural work and convey a new discourse and image of women agricultural workers based on recognizing their essential role in ensuring the country's food security and in bringing the national agricultural policy to fruition.
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The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.