Wednesday Feb 21

Labour Outcry in Morocco

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.



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