Women farm workers achieve justice on the job in Morocco

Photo of a female farm worker at Zniber, the seventh largest private company in Morocco, in Meknes on 21 April 2018. (Kate Conradt/Solidarity Center)

Wrapped in a warm pink headscarf and thick layers of sweaters and shirts, Nezha Chafik, a farm worker in Morocco, bends as she walks between the rows of peach trees, cutting clusters of weeds with her machete in the late April chill.

Since the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) negotiated an agreement in 2015 with Chafik’s employer, the agro-industrial company Les Domaines Brahim Zniber, workers receive better wages and have access to healthcare, a nurse-staffed clinic, improved job safety and ensured access to toilets and regular meal breaks. The agreement has now expanded from 1,000 agricultural workers to more than 1,200 workers on six large farms

“I was sick lately, and just imagine if I did not have the right to health coverage and the support of the trade union,” says Chafik. “I could have been fired or would have quit my job.”

And crucially, because women were at the negotiating table, they won maternity leave, time off to care for sick children and child education benefits. Women also helped negotiate equal access to jobs – ‘male’ jobs, like truck driving and tree pruning, from which they had been previously barred.

“The gap between male workers and female workers used to be huge,” says Hayat Khomssi, a farmworker at Zniber. “Women were not allowed to prune trees whereas men were able to do so. Men were also eligible for bonuses that weren’t granted to women, which made women feel inferior.

“But after we conducted protests, marches and sit-ins, and after the collective agreement, management held training for women to elevate them to management positions, they were allowed to prune and trim trees, and enjoy bonuses equal to men.” The workers tell their story in a new video produced by the international worker rights organisation Solidarity Center titled Morocco Women Farm Workers Stand up for Their Rights.

In a new case study of the CDT-Zniber bargaining process and outcomes, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) found that through the contract, women made key workplace gains in reducing gender discrimination, improving wages and working conditions and facilitating broader social dialogue among workers and their unions, employers and the government through the bargaining process. The report also found that if labour laws were consistently followed across the supply chain, informal economy workers would receive an additional 3 per cent of wages and benefits.

Employer, government supports the contract

In Meknes, a fertile area 90 miles east of the Moroccan capital of Rabat, workers at Zniber, the seventh largest private company in Morocco, cultivate, process and pack apples, peaches, pears and grapes. They produce 30 million bottles of wine and 500 tons of extra virgin olive oil per year.

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Prior to the agreement, one woman working at Domaine Zniber is quoted in the ICRW report The Benefits of Collective Bargaining for Women: A Case Study of Morocco: “We didn’t have any uniform, whether it was raining or snowing. We didn’t have the right shoes, sometimes it was so cold that our shoe soles would stick to the ground.”

The contract is the first-ever in Morocco’s agriculture sector, where women comprise nearly half of the country’s four million agricultural workers, and both management and the government are eager for more such agreements.

“One collective agreement is not enough,” says Abdelkarim Nakkash, the regional director of Employment and Occupational Integration in Meknes. “We need to disseminate this agreement to different establishments and cover the economic fabric as a whole and not only the agricultural sector.

A Zniber manager, Aziz El Yaakoubi, says: “I would like to tell those willing to engage in this agreement to not be afraid to do so, as it is based on a win-win logic. Employers will profit in terms of operations and workers will gain better wages and additional premiums.”

Nurturing women leaders, achieving gender equality at work

The pact follows a multi-year education and training effort by the CDT, with support from the Solidarity Center, to help workers in orchards, olive groves and vineyards improve their working conditions.

The agreement’s success stems in large part from the gender equality trainings by CDT and Solidarity Center. Launched in 2007, the training enabled women to understand their rights and to take steps to improve their difficult conditions, says Touriya Lahrech, coordinator of the CDT’s Women Department and a member of its executive board.

The women help determine the issues important to them and also design their trainings, which are conducted through role play because many are illiterate. “The fact that they participate in the design of the role play which builds on their own experiences” is especially meaningful and effective, says Lahrech. Engendering conversation and listening instills participants with the value they deserve, she says.

Lahrech describes how women who initially sat in the back of the room too fearful to speak have gone on after the trainings to take the microphone at massive rallies on Women’s Day and in CDT meetings, where they articulate their rights.

The presence of women in the negotiations during the conclusion of this collective agreement was necessary, as they were able to lay down their specific issues, such as pregnancy,” says Saida Bentahar, a member of CDT’s executive committee.

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Says Chafik: “I really advise women workers to join the union because they will gain a lot from that. We are now treated the same as men. We have exactly the same rights.”

Standing up to supply chains takes collective action

In Morocco as across the world, the most marginalised workers frequently labour in agriculture for poverty wages with few rights – and where the reach of national laws is weak. More than 450 million people work in supply chain-related jobs like agriculture.

Workers in the global supply chain are key to the global economy. Yet multinationals compete with each other to reduce production costs by lowering labour costs. The result is often jobs that areinsecure and informal, involving dangerous workplaces, unpaid overtime and even forced labour.

The feminisation of agriculture and agroprocessing goes hand in hand with its industrialisation, particularly the growth of high-value agriculture production and agroprocessing for export, which generates insecure, low-paying contract jobs in supply chains.

Paid so little they often have a hard time feeding their families, and often exposed to pesticides and other hazardous conditions, women also are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, physical abuse and other forms of gender-based violence at work.

Exploited on the job, women typically carry most of the household burden as well. “Women work in the house, [tend] cattle, prepare food and bread, fetch water with donkeys,” says a woman farmworker at Zniber farm.

Individually, women farmworkers face insurmountable odds changing the practices that govern global supply chains. Yet through their union, women farmworkers in Meknes achieved valuable skills that have enabled them to gain economic opportunities at work and, even more important for many, a sense of dignity they had never experienced.

“Now we have achieved a similar status to that of the men,” says Khomssi. “In the past, there was no path for me to be manager, so I used to feel inferior. But after the collective agreement, I became a manager, and I am now responsible for managing 30 women and giving them work tasks.

“I now feel equal to men in every aspect. There is no difference between us and them, and they can’t say they are better than women.”

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