Wednesday Mar 21

What we thought we knew from our great Western bubble was a Morocco as a champion of constitutional democracy (albeit monarchical, like Spain, which still incredibly and unjustifiably preserves the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Moroccan territory) between the countries of MENA, Middle East North Africa.

Then, between September and October this year, I saw with my very eyes, another Morocco. Another world, with the annual Organizer Forum (meeting of various community organizations of and around the world with local active activist realities) we joined with the most precious and courageous movements and activists like Laila Nassimi among others in the midst of the Hirak movement; so the reasons for all this misperception from within our bubble quintessentially lie in an effective, fierce media embargo of what is a subtle sovereign state with no free illuminated king as the few, prominent chronicles have introduced into our big bubble in order to keep it bubbling, keep it from bursting.

In the Moroccan realm, every word of every voice of every minority is suffocated in the violence of blood and the virulence of silence, while the King controls directly or indirectly about 85% of the economy between Chinese boxes, recycling state money and expropriating entire neighborhoods.

Wiretapping is used systematically; journalists such as Omar Radi are trapped at the first false step (the first true piece): they lose the license to be paid for writing at home and they are banned from paying for any foreign title, ceasing to be able to practice the journalistic profession, and this is the other great bubble, the Moroccan, with thick walls like those of the prisons of the Kingdom, which encompass and imprison the whole thought, the whole perception of the country itself and outward; free people such as Adil Labdahi, a Casablanca activist, also engaged in the 20th February Movement (born in the wake of the Arab Spring), who end up in jail in such a clumsy and grotesque manner: when Adil launches on a website a blog with a video that shows a local politician while accepting a bribe, he is quickly arrested... he, Adil! Not the politician or the corruptor, but Adil himself for having exposed them. Immediately sentenced on (unfair) trial to a 3-year jail sentence. Times of justice are far from biblical, for those who have committed anything but crimes. The system of (in)justice in Morocco is a perfect machine. In prison, Adil Labdahi is prevented from seeing his mother and children, as well as not being allowed to speak with his lawyers, at least until we intervene for what was a small breath of air in a choking country, a small victory in one defeated democracy.

Here the last remaining unionists are opposed in all ways by a subtle regime that tackles them in different manners, depending on the person, the situation, the specific convenience to crush the best way: some are imprisoned, some coopted and sent to parliament within puppet parties created ad hoc.

This is the country’s great democratic scandal: most political parties are, well, puppet parties. Fictional parties created ad hoc to give both inside and outside the illusion of a multi-voiced democracy, which is actually just a single vortex, with a single vertex.

Shrill social encouragement signals have emerged since February 20 with an activation of the first unknown social life in the streets, where cultural encounters are now being held and celebrated, things that simply did not occur in the streets of the Kingdom.

Inside the Parliament, where, as I said, the 2/3 of the parties are a joke, some leftist forces even though minorities are doing to some extent, even if they are not officially spokesman for the instances from below of various movements, have taken on the job of voicing the activists’ voices.

With the arrival of the new dictator in 1999, repression became more subversive and shameful: to shield it by giving the regime a wholly apparent tolerance, he began pretending reformism.

It is sadistic, but the perception supported by many and very serious facts is that the sovereign wants to solicit the rights to tickle them and then subtract them, crush them.

The same is with workers’ rights.

And the citizens’ right.

Yes, the other great plain on which the Moroccans began to exist and resist, in addition to that of awareness, is that of citizenship.

In a meeting with Aadel Essaadani, founder of the extraordinary association for the transcultural development of the country and beyond, Racines (bearing the “culture is the solution” slogan, mocking the slogan “Islam is the solution”, he told us how the challenge is not so much to train better citizens, but... at least to train citizens!

The awareness of citizenship and rights in Morocco is something incredibly new, a tabula rasa, a desert where before there has never been fertile ground, and therefore on which to start from scratch, first making aware citizens to be such and, as such, to have rights that they can and must defend.

According to Aadel, political opposition alone - where the majority of the parties even say it are created in the regime’s lab – is insufficient. Speaking of puppet parties, he cites the case of an old communist party whose leader was fiercely anti-confessional, until the party existed and put own its show, and until, when the show wrapped up, he was free from it and to portray his true vocation: to lead pilgrimages.

To seriously deal with political and civil rights, it is necessary to provide the people with the tools they need to first become aware of and a moment after defending their rights, creating a community of defenders of every single citizen as such and as part of citizenship.

Citizenship, which is difficult to understand for citizens, is paradoxically almost impossible to abandon: in constitutional laws there is no renunciation to the same, and to this day very few people have since the State exists given up in it.

In the midst, constant control and counterfeiting of information through puppet parties and shrewd laws, including loose constitutions on which Moroccans are called to vote by referendum (from the first referendum consultation on December 7, 1962 to 2011, there have been another 10 referendums, almost all on the constantly changing constitution!) that in part, the irony of the fate of the sovereign, for a long time are quite pleonastic, since the Moroccans who go to the polls do not understand what they are doing while they line up, believing they are undergoing to a sort of census, or a medical check, a religious function, or some party.

To date, Moroccans are mostly unaware of the concept of state.

During some general assemblies following February 20, many activists and revolutionaries still showed dramatic problems of basic political vocabulary.

In the meantime, for over forty years, another battle has been engulfed by the King of Morocco: a battle against democracy and against the desert.

The region immediately south of the borders of Morocco, according to the King an integral part of the Moroccan nation, at the sunset of Franco’s regime when the area was a Spanish protectorate, saw the ‘middle’ tactics examined by our reportage unfolding in a peaceful Green March of Citizenship, actually organized and put in place by the Moroccan army (of which in 20,000 accompanied the people across the border) to legitimize Moroccan presence and sovereignty over the territory, which shortly thereafter would be dismembered and parted between Morocco and Mauritania, to the indolence of the international community and the impotence of the Polisario Front (from the Spanish abbreviation of Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro), born in the meantime with the aim of self-determinationof the Sahrawi people many of whom had since to seek asylum in places like the Hassi Raduni refugee megacamp, in the deserted southwestern Algerian desert where everything is missing, every right of citizenship is denied in situ, where water is also missing.

Countless, unnecessary to say, the political prisoners beaten in the worst case of the worst in prisons including some secretly concealed jails hidden in the gutter, in the middle, like that of Témara, near Rabat.

And hiding in jail, in the big bubble, are even prisoners who are not yet, like Rabbi Houmazen, an activist who sentenced himself to death when he said he was in favor of a Moroccan democratic republic, and that he has since been wanted by the regime to be arrested and tortured once, the last time, in his last jail-in-jail.

In a sense the regime has turned Morocco into is a full prison, a prison in the middle, in a bubble, in the middle of a desert.

But prisons are meant for breaking, just like bubbles are destined to burst.

David Tozzo is head organizer of ACORN Italy in Rome, and the President of his regional branch of the political party, Possible.

The Playing Field

Set against a backdrop of social and human rights oppression, trade unions in Morocco have struggled to carve out advancements for workers. The participants in this years’ Organizing Forum delegation learned firsthand about the interplay between state oppression and the fight for human and labour rights.

In order to understand the current state of labour in Morocco, one must have some sense of how the current landscape came to be.

Since the 1980’s, neoliberal politics have ruled the day. Real union strength has been targeted since that time. The first wave of “attack” was to jail union leaders; the second wave saw the state attempt to co-opt leaders, often through an offer of status in government. This left the labour movement thin in leadership and open to further attack.

Broad state policy seeks to bring corporate investment into Morocco to take advantage of the close geography to Europe, and cheap labour which results from virtually no legislative protections for workers or unions.

The legislative framework governing unions in Morocco is thin at best. The free market and the suggestions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) seem to carry great weight with the state. In order to be recognized as such, a union needs 6% of the employees on a national level and, at minimum, 35% of the local workers voting in favor of representation at the local, or shop floor, level.

Currently, union density in the country is 6% of all formal workers. The formal sector contains roughly one million workers, representing approximately 30% of the national workforce. The remaining workers are informal and virtually non-union in all respects. One must remember that these numbers do not account for the structural unemployment that many women face due in part to extremely low wages, extremely low job security, and poor transportation options. This is the reality for many women that would ordinarily work, but simply can’t because of the systemic conditions.

Informal workers lack formal documentation to work, thus making access to any minimal social safety net or employment standards rules virtually impossible. Compounding this is a remarkable lack of access to education or medical services. Political power is strong in the informal sector so the state has removed their hands to “let it breathe”. Informal workers are much cheaper to use than formal workers. If informal workers do not toe the state line the alternative for these workers is no work at all so they side with the state often. Informal work contributes 40% of the GDP for Morocco.

Morocco has signed many international trade deals resulting in an influx of foreign investment. This foreign capital is eager to take advantage of the conditions favourable to corporations. In spite of the lax rules, corporations are moving many jobs out of the country to countries with even lower labour standards and wages! As one could expect, this seems to have driven the state to an increased focus on forcing wages and working conditions even lower.

The government continues to listen to IMF demands to make labour law even more “flexible”. Further, they have attempted to pass laws that demand reparations for strikes and send union leaders to court or jail for striking.

Daily Battles and a Glimmer of Hope

We heard a number of moving stories about union actions in Morocco, many of which were very bleak. We heard about a five-year Moroccan Workers Union (UMT) action in call centers in the country. UMT lays claim to being the lead union pushing for workers’ rights in Morocco. They were established in 1955 by working class and social activists. They have been partnered with ReAct in this latest battle focused in call centers and the off shoring of jobs. The partnership with ReAct, part of our delegation and an ACORN partner, has allowed for international coordination with France. The going is rough. The sector is extremely hard to organize, with jobs being taken out of Morocco to countries with lower labour and union standards and excessive worker turnover. In addition to the aforementioned difficult rules in place to establish representational rights, the unions, once in place, face nameless shareholders in far flung countries that control salaries and working conditions. Employers continually try to push union leaders out. Unions continue to fight the good fight in the face of these challenges, but it requires a lot of work, and a lot of on the ground support for internal activists. In a sector that has 70,000 workers in 560 call centers, the union claims 5,000 workers support the union but dues aren’t collected from more than 100!

We also heard an amazing story of a 3000-employee microelectronics plant. This corporation has a massive worldwide network and  produces electronic chips and processors for the auto sector in Morocco. Workers in France and Italy handle research and development, the production occurs in Morocco and the finishing happens in Asia. The workers organized with UMT in 2010. The activists that joined us reported many union leaders being fired without recourse as there are no legal protections under Moroccan law. Following the organizing drive in May of 2010, the employer immediately initiated a mass firing of union activists, but this local union had anticipated such and had a secret strategy waiting. Twenty minutes after the paperwork seeking certification was filed the employer immediately fired the entire internal organizing committee. The workers sprang into action and 85% of the workers laid down their tools shutting down 100% of the production. The workers built a barrier around the plant so the company couldn’t bring in scabs. They also blocked the production machinery inside the plant as a tactic. The company brought in security forces and attack dogs to try and force people back to work. They failed. The company began to lose money immediately and within 36 hours agreed to return the twelve organizers to their employment. Further, the company agreed to negotiate with the union. The negotiations were difficult and the Union again brought strong tactics to bear by reaching out internationally to secure support. They partnered with other union locals in France, Italy and Malaysia to coordinate sit-ins at the same time. They organized these actions with two demands in mind. First, opposition to a change in the company’s global strategy, and second they demanded dividends for employees. The union locals wrote a global manifesto which they presented to the company. Together the global actions and local grit drove a settlement. Workers were able to secure superb increases to working conditions. These gains included an approximate 28% pay increase, no mandatory overtime guarantee, a 10-hour maximum shift length, mandatory two days off after six days of work, and an increase from 6 % to 13.7% for retirement benefits (pension!).

On our final day in Morocco we visited with the Organization for Democratic Work (ODT). This union is relatively new, having been formed in 2012. They claim the distinguished honor of being the first union to organize immigrant workers. They are “progressive left” politically and organize many marginalized groups of workers that are traditionally unorganized. These groups include those with the worst working conditions, workers making less than the minimum wage, women and children. This has shifted the union’s demographic, making them younger and younger by average age. The ODT approaches organizing in a slightly different way. They are open to organizing society as a whole, not just salaried or hourly workers. The union has become interested in, and maintained, sustainable development goals. They are vigorous in their defence of migrant workers, staving off tracking, arrests and police oppression of these workers. The ODT also has a niche in the health care sector and pursues the organization of street sellers and taxi cab drivers. They list 18,000 dues paying members and place union density at approximately 4% in the sectors they organize. It is very difficult to track non-dues paying members, but they estimate they have 44,000 such workers. They speculate density is so low because of a fear of reprisal from the employers. They continue to pursue “regularization” of migrant workers as a lead demand. They also continue to organize in the difficult area of migrant domestic work, drawing attention to the issues these workers face and demanding change.

The Path Forward

The struggle is very real for labour unions in Morocco. The deck is stacked against workers and they labour under extremely difficult conditions, both economic and social. The law is virtually non-existent in terms of protections; what laws do exist are routinely unenforced. While there are pockets of excellent organizing, such as the microelectronics unit, the majority of actions are less direct.

It seems that an aggressive change to the political system and political will in Morocco is needed in order to pursue the drafting of new laws providing protections for workers. These laws would then need to be enforced. Also needed are loose organizations of workers taking the next formal step and organizing themselves into union locals to begin the long battle of demanding, winning and protecting an increased set of working conditions.

Internationally we can support Moroccan Labour by demanding that our governments hold the Moroccan government accountable under our international trade agreements and demand that human rights violations and oppression of workers not be tolerated if they want these agreements to be honored. Further, we can continue to draw attention to the awful conditions that many workers face on a daily basis to grind out an existence.

We wish the workers of Morocco strength and solidarity in the difficult fight ahead.

Doug Dykens is Director of Field Service and Negotiations for the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU) and is based in Vancouver.



In September, my associates and I joined three associates with ReAct France and Morocco for the 2017 ACORN International Organizers’ Forum. Laila Nassimi, Bouchra Rhouzlani, and Marielle Bencheboune introduced us to various human rights groups in Casablanca and Rabat. The purpose of the forum was to educate us on the country’s social issues and efforts of the local human rights organizations. One issue that continues to plague the country throughout the current regime is poor, unfair labor conditions.

Several local activists agree that the monarch has a history of unfair labor treatments. Under the former king, Hassan II, citizens could count on him imposing sanctions that favored his kingdom instead of the people. He would limit trade deals with foreigners to usurp power over available merchandise to local vendors. As a result, his actions forced vendors to resort to smuggling goods (mainly clothes) to sell in order to make up for their losses. Additionally, Hassan II would incite division between migrant and native workers and fail to enforce labor regulatory laws. Unfortunately, following Hassan II’s death in 1999, Mohammad VI maintained his father’s practices as he succeeded him to the throne.

To preserve his kingdom, King Mohammad undermines local merchants by creating their dependency on his regime. One activist we met shared a story about several street sellers forming solidarity and writing a proposal to the state. In it, they asked the state to give them land, and they would find funders to build a commercial building so they could sell items inside. Their request was due to the state making a previous proclamation that the authorities were planning to build commercial markets and malls in the locations where the street sellers sold their goods. Reportedly, the king rejected the proposal and gave the workers an option to rent a tent from him and the government instead, or limit their selling to their own neighborhoods where they paid utilities. Restricting sellers to their communities puts limits on their profits and may force sellers to relocate. Non-compliance to his decrees could result in a significant loss of income for vendors and support to their families. To continue his corruption and authority, the king decrees that if someone wanted to be a street seller, they would have to commit to providing any information about friends and families at his request, as told by a local organizer.

Labor Fight: A continued fight for justice

Human rights organizations in Morocco want better wages, health insurance, and gender equality in the workplace. They also long for fair treatment on the job site, more job opportunities, and the right to unionize without facing the government’s harassment. Most of the groups we met want benefits for natives and migrants whether they are informal or formal workers. However, they face several oppositions that make the victories a little tougher to gain. The groups we spoke with seemed to agree on at least two barriers that affect their progress— (1) the king and (2) the present ideology of the indigenous people (which includes their loyalist views toward the regime and traditions). According to Lalia, an activist with ReAct Morocco, Moroccans lack an understanding of current social issues, which presents another barrier. Racine, founder of a local social and human development group, had concerns that “locals don’t know where to go to fight” for social justices, which impedes their fight for progress.

We asked several activists how Moroccan human rights organizations plan to overcome barriers and oppositions to achieve social and economic growth, specifically progress with labor conditions; each group could agree on the problems, but they struggled with developing organized strategies to gain reform. Representatives from two groups we met, PADS and Afrique Culture Maroc, suggest that developing a culture that embraces diversity, accountability, and freedom (among other attributes) is the solution. On the other hand, F.A.D.A.E. offered there solution— “Progressive changes would come when citizens obtain freedom within public space.”

Labor Laws and Poor Conditions

Labor and human service issues are apparent on the streets of Casablanca. Children panhandle and sell goods on the streets during school hours like skilled workers. Young kids (about six to ten years old) stood on sidewalks asking strangers for money—a practice not allowed in many parts of North America. The young street sellers appeared to be pre-teens and teens. It was unclear how many hours of schooling these children missed or whether they attended school at all. One crew member noted seeing a young child working in the same location for at least four hours. Other obvious issues included young kids working in unsanitary conditions, a lack of food, and protection to shield them from the outdoor elements. One could not help asking activists about the possibility of the young workers performing forced labor. Local activists told us that forced-child labor continues to plague the country, particularly Casablanca, the economic capital of the nation.

Activist, Bouchra, explained that children in rural areas are less likely to attend school due to a lack of resources; therefore, forcing families to use children in the informal working sector. This type of work for kids is a form of forced child labor. The Moroccan constitution sites the minimum age of employment as 15, and it warn employers of a penalty for breaking the law. As pedestrians trampled the sidewalks, no one appeared concerned about this vulnerable population of young workers. No one stopped to advocate for them to return to school or assist with basic resources and transportation. Problems with child labor may have decreased slightly on paper since the 20 February protests, according to local groups, but they still exist in reality. Child labor creates a greater risk for children not to graduate high school, complete a post-secondary education, or trade school. Child workers are also at risk for becoming domestic laborers. Children as young as eight years old perform domestic work for elitist families, as reported by a local activist.

Domestic workers are vulnerable for exploitation  by employers, according to Ali Lotfi, director of the Democratic Labor Organization (ODT). Most migrant and domestic workers either are young or have limited education. Predator’s target orphaned or abandoned little girls for forced domestic labor. Domestic and migrant laborers, whether child or adult female, are subject to various types of abuse from their employers. Groups like ODT, Afrique Culture Maroc (ACM) and Association Democratic Women of Morocco (ADWM) fight for fair domestic labor laws and women’s rights. Representatives with ACM and ADWM explained how families mistreat female domestic workers. These workers endure physical beatings, low wages, no wages and long workdays without breaks. Additionally, many migrant workers reported that their bosses steal their employees’ important identification papers, making it difficult for migrants to get an ID, social services and housing. Employers might also require the domestic workers to work additional days, instead of allowing them time off to be with their own families. Rose, with ACM, explained that migrant workers receive half the pay of Moroccan workers and work about five or six extra hours beyond the typical eight-hour time frame. Morocco’s Labor Code limits the workweek to 44 hours, but the country’s labor codes do not cover domestic workers extensively. Consequently, they complete the extra hours without additional pay.

Members of the ADWM, a strong voice for women, have fought for women’s rights since 1985. Sara Sojar explained to our team that her group worked to achieve equal pay for women in fields that employ both genders. The ADWM achieved another victory when the minimum age for a domestic worker was set at 15 years old and not younger. The change in the law restricts employers from hiring young girls. The group’s continued work include raising the age limit for domestic work from 15 to 18, achieving role equality and equality with job advancement for women, according to Sara.

Formal versus informal workers

The informal sector is the fastest growing sector in Morocco’s workforce . Local social justice groups are working to unionize these particular groups of workers. Informal workers are workers who lack citizenship documentation. The ODT reports that migrants make up a large percentage of informal workers. They usually work in fishing, construction, street selling, call center and domestic work. As informal workers, there are no guaranteed wages, health benefits, vacation, and opportunities for position advancement or any of the benefits formal workers might have access to. Although informal workers do not pay taxes, they are consumers; therefore, they are relevant to the nation’s economy. They make up approximately 15% of the GDP. The ODT has worked to organize informal workers in at least three cities—Casablanca, Fez, and Marrakesh.

Stephanie Newton is a member and leader of Local 100 United Labor Unions in Little Rock, Arkansas.



Too often women from African and Middle Eastern countries are depicted as powerless victims beholden to the wishes and archaic laws of a more powerful ruling class of men. While this article will not sugarcoat the dire conditions that come with living as a woman in Morocco, it will seek to paint a different kind of picture. The women organizers that delegates of the 2017 Organizer’s Forum met were far from powerless; they were passionate, motivated leaders shaking up the foundations of the neoliberal and patriarchal systems of Morocco.

The Family Code

One of our first introductions to women’s rights in Morocco was on the second day of the forum when our speaker, Mr. Hapsee of the Parti Socialiste Unifé, mentioned in passing revisions to the Family Code. As curious organizers we probed for more details and as such the Family Code continued to be a topic of discussion throughout the week. The Family Code of Morocco governs laws pertaining to marriage, children, divorce and inheritance. First attempts at reform made by progressives and feminist organizations such as the Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM) were met with
significant backlash from the Islamist Party and others. Nonetheless, in 2004 when revisions were proposed by King Mohammed VI the opposition jumped in line.

While enormous gains had been made with the new amendments - women’s independence under the law, divorce requiring approval by a judge as opposed to just the husband’s word, and requiring women’s legal consent before engaging in polygamy – our hosts were still critical of what still remains to be improved. Some of those areas included underage marriage, division of assets upon divorce and inheritance laws. While the legal age for marriage is 18, girls between the ages of 15 and 18 can still be wed under the discretion of a judge. Moreover, if there is no formal division of belongings between couples before marriage, by default the husband becomes the sole owner of these items. And finally, in the case of inheritances little progress has been made. While inheritance is an old issue for the ADFM there is fierce opposition from the Islamist Party making it very difficult for groups to push the issue. Therefore, male children of deceased family members still receive twice in inheritance as female children.

Violence Against Women

Violence against women is one of the most widespread yet ignored human rights violations across the globe. Despite Bouchraaldef’s assertion from The Association Challenge for Environment and confirmation from Houdna, President of the ADFM, that violence against women is one of the biggest issues facing Moroccan women, we barely scratched the surface of how that violence transpires in everyday life.

One of the most jarring examples we were told was that of the institutional and physical violence against single mothers. When a single woman gives birth to a newborn the mother must pick the child’s last name off a list as opposed to the child inheriting hers. Moreover, delegates were told that it is horrifyingly commonplace for when a single mother goes to a hospital to give birth, that if a Caesarean Section is needed, the cut is rough and the incision is sewed crudely back together as if to inflict even more pain during one of the most physically painful human experiences.

Though only touched on briefly, tales of sexual assault and harassment- like most places of the world were not uncommon. Whether that story is of the sexual exploitation of domestic workers by their rich employees, activists being molested by the authorities or even my own run ins with street harassment walking down the sidewalks of Casablanca and Rabat, the consensus is that Moroccan women are still forced to struggle with the sexual objectification of their bodies much like all women across the world.

Women in Politics & the Streets

While only two countries in the world can currently boast 50 percent or above representation of women in parliament, women in Morocco have made significant progress on this front thanks to feminist organizing. The ADFM was one of the first feminist organizations in Morocco. Created in 1985, it was founded by left wing party activists who couldn’t pursue their issues in their own parties so they created their own association. Their core goal is the advancement of women’s rights and women’s involvement in politics. Before 2000, women’s participation in politics was 0.05% but has since risen to 21%. It is worth noting that this figure is higher than the United States of America and is not far behind Canadian representation. Nonetheless, the numbers drop once you examine the percentage of women that hold roles of major responsibility in politics.

Outside of the realm of traditional politics women still have to fight to have their voices heard, even in resistance. Bouchra Rhouzlani and Laila Nassimi, two of our Moroccan organizers, were by far two of the most spirited activists we met during our stay so it is frustrating to think of how much energy it would have taken to attempt to silence them. Yet both organizers commented on how in the beginning of the February 20th Movement attempts were made to deprioritize the issues of women. The droves of women that came to participate in the movement were alarming to some and active attempts to reduce their role were made. Despite their opposition, Laila and Bouchra successfully helped create a women’s committee in 2012 to highlight and legitimize the issues brought forward by women in the movement.

Organizer Profiles: Fighting for Individual Rights – Ibtissame Betty Lachgar

In 2009, Betty founded the organization MALI which in Moroccan dialect means, “so what if I am different.” Betty proclaims that MALI was one of the first movements in the Mena Region to use social media to mobilize people on the streets. MALI is a universal, feminist, secular movement that specializes in civil disobedience. Its main focuses include individual liberties, women’s rights, sexuality, abortion rights, freedom of speech, LGBTQ+ rights and religious freedoms. These topics of discussion are taboo in Morocco but MALI is chipping away at these barriers.

MALI was at the heart of the February 20th Movement in Rabat. Betty’s aggressive participation in the movement got her a lot of unfavourable attention due, in particular, to the t-shirt she wore during one of the marches. It stated bluntly, “I don’t need sex, the government fucks me every day.” While applauded by delegates of the forum and followed by inquiries on where we too could buy one these shirts, this infamy for her unabashed activism came with real life consequences. On Dec 31st, Betty was harassed and when she tried to report the incident to police she was arrested for 24 hours. This was only one of the several times she’s been unjustly detained by authorities because of her activist status.

In 2012, MALI took aim at abortion rights by inviting the Dutch organization, Women on Waves, to Morocco. Women on Waves’ mission is to prevent unsafe abortions by providing safe medical abortions and education on women’s right to bodily autonomy. It was the first time the boat had come to a Muslim country. Betty explained that the drug that could safely induce an abortion previously had been accessible without a prescription, but this is no longer the case. Now the drug requires a prescription with many doctors refusing to sign the doctors’ pad; acting as gatekeepers to a woman’s right to choose. As such, the need for such an organization was strong. Anticipating opposition from the authorities, MALI very cleverly advertised the wrong date for the boat’s arrival so by the time the government had come to block the boat’s entry they were a month late.

In 2013, MALI broke taboo again by organizing a kiss-in outside of the parliament building in Rabat. The protest was in response to the government’s arrest of a teenage couple (both of which were only 14 years old at the time) and their friend for taking a photograph of the couple kissing and posting the image on Facebook. Public displays of affection such as holding hands or kissing are illegal in
Morocco and this form of civil disobedience seemed to disrupt the values of passer-by’s to the very core. 40 people participated in the kiss-in and within two minutes chaos broke loose. This time it was the public who attacked first, mainly men, followed by police.

Since 2013, MALI has focused largely on the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. In 2012 MALI was actually the first group to organize around International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Morocco. The circumstances under which those who choose to be open about their sexuality live with on a daily basis are violently oppressive– even if just among family and friends. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are assaulted, jailed by the police and either shunned by family or married off as an attempt to “cure” them.

This can escalate even further if you’re queer and a political agitator. Betty and her partner went public that they live together and have sex; as a result, a fatwa- a holy decree for her blood – was issued against her. In 2015 she was put on ISIS’s hit list. With many disturbed faces around the room, Betty was asked how this has impacted her personally, but she was quick to respond that she is used to this and she is ready to die for her beliefs, leading many of us to refer to her later on in conversations as a warrior. And a warrior she is.

Breaking the King — Laila Nassimi

Laila Nassimi was born in the village outskirts of Casablanca in 1961. When asked what motivated her to get into activism her response was quick and simple – her father. Her father was a prison guard of political prisoners and very loyal to the king. Laila, however, was a rebel girl. When Laila was around 8 years old she transcribed a Tunisian poem into her own language but with one edit. She changed the poem’s sentence, “if the people break their chains,” to “,if the people break their king.” Laila’s father found the poem and chained her inside the house for 3 months; she was a prisoner in her own home. After 3 months Laila was given “temporary freedom” by attending school but would be locked up in the garage every day afterwards.

In 1979, when Laila was 18, she escaped and started her life with no money but would take small jobs in a pharmacy or at a bar. Laila recalled her first experience of activism being acts of feminism. She was the first woman in 1985 to play chess competitively and gained national attention in 1986 when she out-skilled the rest of the competition and became the first female chess champion of Morocco.

However, Laila’s troubles did not end after leaving her father’s house. From 1988 to 1997 she was married to a man who was an alcoholic and physically abusive towards her and her two children. She wanted a divorce but this was still illegal under the Family Code when requested by a woman. After leaving her husband Laila became homeless. But in 1999 Laila found work in a marketing company and was able to afford a trip across Morocco. During this trip she saw everyday people with no money who were bored and lacked education. In addition to her own experience, this trip made her very sensitive to the cause of her people.

A few years later she took a seminar on mass mobilizing and knew she wanted to put this new knowledge into practice. In 2007, she created her own social/cultural association. At the same time she was
working at a call centre. Initially, Laila thought the call centre would be a good gig since it started in Europe and workers’ rights would be expected. However, rights were not respected and Laila started talking to her colleagues about organizing a union. When the boss found out management fired 350 workers, leaving Laila and her coworkers crestfallen – at that point in time she said she did not know if change was even possible

But on February 20th 2011 – in her own words – she went back to break the king. Since the start of the February 20th movement, Laila has been most proud of standing up for the rights of political prisoners as she believes freedom of expression is one of the most sacred freedoms. According to Laila, she is fighting for the rights of everyone – the king included – even if he doesn’t know it.

In closing, I had asked Laila as we sat in the lobby of our hotel in Casablanca, if there was one thing I had to be sure of to include in this article what would that be? Laila’s response was that the people – especially the people of Arab or monarch countries – suffer because they are poor. Poverty doesn’t stop death, it stops life. Fear doesn’t stop death, it stops life. The people must rise up together in solidarity against fear in order to live a better life.

Reflections and Conclusions

While there are no better words than Laila’s, I feel obliged to conclude this piece. Feminist organizers and progressives alike should be congratulated for the accomplishments that have been made in advancing women’s rights under the law. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to be done on the ground. That being said, regardless of the significant challenges that face them, I am deeply encouraged by the relentless force of will behind the women organizers we met that change is in fact possible in Morocco.

Ashley Reynes directs the Ottawa office of ACORN Canada.

Georgia Quick started at Imperial on the second shift. By the late 1980s, Emmett and Brad Roe extended production in Hamlet as they tried to expand their business, and later in order to recover from their bracing financial setbacks in Colorado and Alabama. On her first day, Quick pulled into the company’s gravel parking lot. She walked to the wood-framed office across the street from the unmarked front door of the red brick factory. The company’s only human resources person met her and gave her a rundown on the job. He told her she needed to be on time for work and that if she came late she would get written up. Five mistakes and she would be out of a job. When they went over to the plant, the first thing that hit Quick was the smell. She would later say it reeked of day-old chicken. Trying not to think about it, she turned her attention back to the company official showing her around. He pointed out the time clocks in the marinating and cutting room and showed her how to stamp her card, then he told her that she needed to punch in in the afternoon and out at midnight. He showed her the break room with the lockers, long tables, and vending machines.

Nearby were the bathrooms. The company guide laid down the rules: a ten-minute break two hours into her shift, a half hour for lunch (or a meal) midway through, and one more ten-minute break after that. Use the bathroom during those times, he told her. If you have to go at another time, don’t take more than five minutes when you do or you will be written up. Five write-ups, he reminded her again, and she would be out of a job.6

Quick would get paid every week. If she wanted health insurance, she could get it for herself and her family beginning 90 days after she started the job. The company would take $10–15 out of her check for each person covered by the plan.

Every once in a while, he continued, confirming what she had heard before she took the job, the company would ask her to work overtime. She would be paid for time and half when she did, and she best show up, if she knew what was good for her, on those Saturdays when they asked her to be there. Maybe he told her, too, about the Christmas party. There would be sandwiches and soda, but only workers would be invited. No spouses to dance with.7

A foreman told Georgia she couldn’t wear heels or open-toed shoes, not that she would have wanted to after seeing the grease and water that puddled up on the concrete floors. If she had a few extra dollars, he suggested, she should go to K-Mart and buy a pair of shoes with grippers on the bottoms. They would make it easier for her to move across the slick surfaces that covered the plant. She couldn’t wear rings, earrings, or necklaces. No chewing gum while on the line either. No eating except in the breakroom. The last two were USDA rules. He told her to avoid loosefitting clothing, because the sleeves could get caught in the machinery. He walked her over to where she could find the blue smocks and mesh hairnets she needed to wear on the job. He told her she would have to clean these at home herself. Later, Quick learned that this was a new policy, one only recently implemented. Previously, the company had paid for laundry. He told her to wear gloves and explained that she could buy them for fifty cents a pair over at the office. The company didn’t provide those anymore either. And he told her that if he or anyone else caught her stealing chicken pieces, she would be fired on the spot and hauled down to the police station.8

The company official didn’t say anything to Quick about what to do in the event of a fire or an emergency. He didn’t offer instructions about how to operate the fire extinguishers. He didn’t say anything about exits or which doors were locked and which were not. He didn’t mention anything about the company’s evacuation plans. He didn’t say one word about safety meetings set for the next week or next month or ever.

After watching another line worker for an hour or so, Quick’s training period was over. Before the whistle blew for the first break, she stood on the line, pulling apart pieces of marinated chicken and laying them flat on a conveyor belt before they went into the flash freezer. The chicken pieces came fast. She struggled to keep up. It got easier after a few weeks on the job, but it was always hard to keep up with the pace of the line.

Again and again, however, Imperial’s derelict equipment saved the day for Quick. The belts often stopped moving. “The fryer,” remembered an- other worker, “would break down at least twice a week.” When the equipment faltered, Quick and the others on the line got unscheduled breaks.

As Imperial Foods revved up the work in Hamlet, adding shifts and more overtime, mechanics constantly had to “nigger rig” the overtaxed machinery, in the words of one white worker. But they couldn’t fix everything right away, and Imperial laborers, white and black, came to count on the malfunctions to give them a chance to catch their breath, massage their wrists, rub some Bengay into their backs, and sit outside and get some fresh air.9

No one at Imperial, certainly not “the line ladies,” as the women who loaded the conveyor belts were called, had a job set in stone. “We move the people around daily in the plant from room to room,” a foreman explained. “It was almost like an everyday thing.” The company shifted workers to where they needed them the most. The strategy of shuffling employees from station to station, from the trim room to the processing room, had an added advantage, managers believed. It kept the workers from breaking down. “After we started . . . changin’ ’em around on jobs,” one foremen recalled, “we had less problems with peoples’ wrists or backs or things like that.” 10

Most nights, Quick stood in pools of water in the trim room, pulling at tough white tendons, cutting out stray pieces of bone, and scraping fat from chicken pieces that sometimes felt slimy or smelled sour. “I hated this job,” she recalled. “It was cold and wet.” No matter what it was like outside, it always felt like a frozen tundra in there—the temperature never climbed too far above freezing. After an hour in the trim room, Quick would be soaked from the waist down, shaking off drops of water as she walked. The cold seeped inside her. She wore two, sometimes three, pairs of gloves to keep her hands warm and fingers moving, but nothing really helped. No matter how many pairs of socks she put on or the shoes she wore, her feet felt like icicles all night long. She tried wrapping them in plastic bags as some of her co-workers did, but this still didn’t keep out the cold. Nothing helped but getting home and pulling off her wet socks and taking a few minutes, if she had them, to rub her hands and warm up her toes and feel them move again before she had to start to cook and clean.11

Sometimes, as the clock inched toward midnight, Quick would start to drift off, thinking about her daughter and the piles of laundry back home. She never got very far away, though. “Get to work,” the foreman would bark in her direction, asking, “What did you come to work for . . . just to stand around?”

The second shift, Quick remembered, had fewer supervisors and managers than the first shift did. That gave it a looser feel than daytime. The workers tended to be younger, unmarried and without kids, and rowdier. They goofed around more, smoked dope on breaks, and kicked frozen chicken parts around like hockey pucks. “Still,” Georgia pointed out with a shot of pride, “we got the work done.”

Quick worried all the time about child care. Who could watch her daughter? How much would it cost? Most nights, Quick’s aunt took care of her. But not long after Quick started at Imperial, her daughter began to struggle somewhat in school. Quick thought it would help if she were home after classes ended, so she asked the foreman for a transfer to the first shift.

By that point, a year into the job, Quick had already lasted longer than most of the women and men who went through Imperial’s first day of orientation and training. Theresa White lived in the public housing project down the street from the plant. A few days after the fire, she stood next to a loose stream of yellow police tape surrounding the perimeter of the mangled building. She looked up and
said to a reporter, “I worked in there for eight days once. . . . Then I quit. Slavery time’s been over. I couldn’t do it anymore.” 12

Some didn’t even last a week. Imperial consistently registered high turnover rates. That’s one reason the company didn’t invest much time in train- ing and didn’t make health insurance available to new workers for three months. (New laborers not used to the work usually got hurt during their first ninety days on the job.) “It was like a revolving door in there,” Quick’s co-worker, Ada Blanchard, recalled. It didn’t take some people long to realize that standing on a soggy concrete floor for eight hours a day with their hands buried in ice-cold buckets of chicken wasn’t for them. The promise of a Christmas dinner and $60 holiday bonus wouldn’t get the smell of grease out of their hair or the taste of raw chicken out of their mouths, so they quit. For others, it was the nagging pains. Shorter workers strained their shoulders reaching up all day, while taller ones wrenched their backs bend- ing down. For others, it was the relentless pace of the line. They couldn’t keep up with the chicken pieces zipping along the conveyor belts, so they quit. Still others couldn’t take the constant haranguing from the foremen and supervisors and the endless warnings of write-ups for infractions of company rules. “They had a real attitude problem,” one woman thought of management. “They treated the workers like children.” 13

Some hated the constant surveillance, especially the monitoring of bathroom trips with stopwatches. Others didn’t like the threats. If you talked back, you would be fired. If you missed a couple of days, even if it was to take care of a sick child or an ailing parent, you could be fired.

Gingerly navigating the slick tile floors wasn’t easy either, especially with a foreman telling you that if you fell three times you would be fired. Some suspected that this rule was in place because the company wanted to find a cheaper worker’s compensation provider, and reporting injuries would make it harder to qualify for the lower rate. Sometimes Imperial reimbursed employees for hospital visits and the money spent on splints and Ace bandages as a way to deal with repetitive motion injuries and to discourage workers from filing insurance claims.14

Others just couldn’t handle the logistics of the job, getting a ride to the plant before daybreak every day, and finding someone to watch the children and get them home from school. As one manager commented, trying to explain why Imperial experienced so much turnover, “The attendance policy being too tough on them, transportation, baby-sitting, another job closer to home; reasons like that.”

Others just couldn’t see working so hard and putting up with the freezing cold and sour smells for only a little more than minimum wage, even if it ranked among the best paying jobs around. Once they left Imperial, some got another low-wage, low-skill job, while others signed up for public assistance and food stamps.15

Even though the first shift meant more supervisors, more rules, and less downtime because the rickety conveyor belt and sputtering fryer got fixed faster, Quick liked working during the daytime better than in the evening. It put her more on her daughter’s schedule. Plus, she had more in common with her co-workers on this shift. Most were single mothers or women with underemployed husbands. A
number of them were older and, like Gail Campbell, didn’t drink, smoke, or swear. On Sundays, they put on flowery dresses and matching hats and headed off to church. On the job, they sang gospel hymns and chatted about Bible passages.16

Over many months and years, first-shift workers transformed the songs and conversations into an alternative social security system. “Everyone looked out for everyone else,” Quick said. They shared tips on how to stay warm and deal with the foremen, Brad Roe, and, to a lesser extent, Emmett Roe. They lent each other hairnets, gloves, Tylenol, and sometimes small amounts of money. On payday, Quick and a few of her friends raced down Bridges Street during their lunch break to a local grill and treated themselves, she remembered with a smile, to bags filled with hot hamburgers wrapped in grease-stained paper. On most mornings, she carpooled with other women to save on gas.
 After a while,” Quick explained, “it was like a family.” 17

The warmth and trust between workers didn’t change the fact that Quick, like Ada Blanchard, “didn’t like how we were treated by management.” 18 “They didn’t care anything about how you felt, who you were,” Mary Bryant remembered, voicing a complaint common to Imperial workers. “All they wanted was for you to run the chicken.” 19

A number of Imperial workers associated the relentless, chicken-first mind-set with Brad Roe. After finishing his studies at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit school near Moosic, Roe, then in his early twenties, moved to North Carolina to manage the Imperial plant. This was about the same time that Georgia Quick started to work there. As tall and thin as his dad was thick and pudgy, Brad had shaggy
hair and a full mustache. He was chattier than his father. He could be quick with a joke and even quicker with a sports report, skills that he would put to good use after the fire when he made a living as a bartender. Like his father, though, he worked hard and put in long hours. While some of the line ladies and maintenance crew liked Brad and thought he played fair and by the rules, others resented him and bristled at his sometimes hot-tempered managerial style. A few saw him as a spoiled child or as a kid who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand up to his domineering father. They remember him answering just about any question that involved personnel or money by saying, “Let me ask my dad.” 20

Georgia Quick saw him as a young man—a young white man—without a wrinkle on his face or a gray hair on his head telling women, most of whom were African American and who had worked at the plant since he was a teenager, what to do, and not always doing so in a kind or polite way.

Quick and her co-workers also thought Brad Roe, or maybe his father, had ordered the supervisors to rule the shop floor, especially in the second half of 1991, with an “iron fist.” “Don’t be lenient,” they reportedly instructed. “Show no mercy.” 21

“Sometimes he would be friendly; sometimes he wasn’t,” Quick remarked about Brad. He had a nice side, but he had another side, she recalled, that was “nasty,” “mean,” and “obnoxious.” He would yell at workers to stop goofing off and get back to the job. He yelled if any- one raised a question about faulty equipment or a concern about rancid chicken, reminding them of their disposability. “If you don’t
like the job,” Quick recalled him hollering, “leave, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” He pushed the maintenance men to hurry up and fix machines as quickly as possible to get the line back up and running before anyone had time to take an unscheduled break. All he cared about, one of Quick’s male co-workers concluded, “was the product, getting it out.” 22

But for Quick and the other first-shift women, liking the job or liking Brad Roe was never really the issue. They needed a job, one that didn’t require a lot of training, education, or experience. They needed to make money for their families, and they would absorb the pain, abuse, and petty rules because to complain was to risk getting fired, and then there was nothing.

That was Georgia Quick’s story. With her husband gone much of the time now that his work at the cotton gin wasn’t as predictable as it used to be, Quick needed a steady paycheck. For someone living in a small town with a high school education and a resume filled with a string of low-wage jobs, there weren’t a lot of options available.

Kate Nicholson worked alongside Georgia Quick on the first shift, and they had followed similar paths to get there. In 1991, Nicholson was a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two with a tenth-grade education. When her husband lost his job at a Richmond County textile mill, she went to work at Imperial. “I needed a job,” she explained to a reporter after the fire without elaborating, because there was nothing else to say.23

Bryant Simons is a professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia. He became interested in the Hamlet Fire when he was attending university in North Carolina. This book is available from

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