Peasants and other people working in rural areas, irrespective of whether they are temporary, seasonal or migrant workers, have the rights to work in safe and healthy working conditions, to participate in the application and review of safety and health measures, to select safety and health representatives and representatives in safety and health committees (…)”
Low-cost fruit and vegetables sold across supermarkets in the Global North have a hidden price: super-low wages for Global South producers.
The policies and behaviours of governments and corporate agribusiness have created and enabled a food system based on the exploitation of cheap labour, including through clamping down on unions and workers organising for better wages and working conditions. Women workers are particularly at risk of labour exploitation. The high level of unpaid work carried out by women, including unpaid household labour, along with below subsistence wages, keeps women workers in poverty.
The vast amount of unpaid work occurring across the Global South means southern workers’ wages are effectively subsidised.123 This dynamic extends to the wages of labourers when they enter the geographical north: female Moroccan strawberry pickers in southern Spain, or the overwhelmingly Chicano workforce in US fruit and vegetable agriculture.
Morocco is essentially a large vegetable garden for the European Union, sending 92% of its vegetable exports across the Mediterranean, with tomatoes totalling 43% of this. Morocco produces 25% of the tomatoes and 20% of the fruits consumed in the UK.
Morocco’s rural population of 1.5 million peasants and 1 million farmworkers counts for 36% of the total population.124 Land concentration is particularly uneven: just 1% of the rural population farm 15% of the total agricultural area; while 71% farm 24% of the total area, on smallholdings of less than five hectares.
The legacy of colonialism in Morocco and the growth of capitalism since the 1960s led to the neocolonial Plan Maroc Vert (PMV) or Green Morocco Plan in 2008-18; through which a small minority of local and foreign exporters used public subsidies to expand their landholdings and maximise profits. While smallholder farmers became poorer, losing land and access to resources, multinational corporate monopolies strengthened their grip on the seed, pesticide, and fertiliser trade. The rural minimum wage was just 1,994 Moroccan dirham (US$203) per month as of 2018. The food security strategy pursued by the Moroccan government has meant that food export revenues cover only 48% of imports.
The corporate megafarms, based in the fertile and agriculturally productive Souss region of Morocco, have ‘gained’ the most from the PMV, precisely because the model is based on environmentally and socially destructive methods: the rampant overuse and depletion of groundwater, soil destruction through monoculture, and the improper disposal of agricultural wastes. A significant portion of arable land in the Souss region is cultivated with fruits and vegetable for the export market.
Exploitation is rife across the sector, and not just from the corporate agribusinesses. Small to medium farms hire non-unionised workers to labour in precarious conditions, transporting workers on ramshackle and dangerous lorries; intermediaries make their cut of profits by keeping workers unaware of their rights and paid low wages, while most employers offer nothing in the way of social security, bonuses, or holiday days. The practices of intermediaries have a dramatic impact on reducing workers’ rights, weakening unions and their struggles, particularly in the large farms. Many farmworkers live in poor neighbourhoods without the adequate infrastructure to ensure a dignified life, and where the impact of Covid-19 on health and the war in Ukraine have increased the price of food, making life harder.
ATTAC/CADTM Maroc is a popular education movement committed to the Moroccan struggles against globalisation and the dominance of international financial institutions. Its work is grounded in solidarity between peoples and based on social justice, with recent struggles focusing on debt, microcredit, extractivism, workers’ rights, trade justice, climate justice and food sovereignty.
ATTAC Maroc is a founding member of the North African Network for Food Sovereignty (Now, Siyada Network) , a unified voice for the struggle of peasants, fisherfolk and agricultural workers in the region that brings together representatives from trade unions, cooperatives, and associations that work across food sovereignty.
One of these member unions is the Syndicat Démocratique de l’Agriculture (SDA), or the Democratic Union of Agriculture, which belongs to the Federation of Democratic Unions in Morocco, an important organiser and defender of farmworkers in Chtouka Ait Baha, located in the Souss region.
The SDA’s women’s committee organised protests to illuminate the suffering of women farm workers across March and April 2022. Alongside lower wages, women workers often spray toxic pesticides without access to appropriate tools, protective uniforms, or spraying schedules. Women are often made to carry very heavy vegetable boxes and work long hours in extremely hot plastic-covered greenhouses. Others feel pressure to hide their pregnancies or their periods for fear of dismissal from work, or even return to work straight after childbirth, a denial of the right to maternity leave. Sexual harassment is often rife in production and packaging units, which overwhelmingly goes unreported and unchallenged.
For women who join unions the situation is often made even worse through retaliatory assault and harassment. As one worker states:
“We live in neighbourhoods deprived of decent living conditions, enduring the hardships of a life of poverty and we bear the responsibility of giving birth and raising children in a patriarchal society that does not recognise our roles without which production and society cannot function. Our situation has further deteriorated with the consequences of the Covid pandemic, the high prices of main consumption materials, transportation, and medicines, with failing public health services and public education. The consequence is that we are trapped in a vicious circle of consumer loans and micro-credits, which drain us at high-interest rates. We are put daily through the mill so as to maximise the profits of the agricultural capitalists who benefit from subsidies and tax incentives. While we live in misery, the employers are constantly expanding their properties and changing their fancy cars”. 125
In 2022, workers trying to organise against these conditions organised a sit-in protest at the headquarters of Duroc, a company belonging to the large agricultural group Delassus. Duroc employs 3,500 workers all year round and produces 37 tonnes of tomatoes per year to be exported to the EU and the UK markets. Striking workers have been subject to violent assaults by the company’s management, followed by a court-ordered quashing of their protests.
In Agadir, the Zniber Group’s administration assigned workers a minimum production rate and halved the wages of workers who did not achieve it, while expelling unionists trying to organise against this exploitation. These repressive acts culminated in a female worker being run over in October 2021, sending her to hospital. Zniber is one of the largest agricultural holdings in the region, which directly employs 7,500 workers. Zniber also exports its products to the EU and the UK through Driscoll’s, the largest distributor of berries in the world.
On the farms of the Azura Group, struggles for unionisation have been ongoing since 2007, with the company expelling organisers and affiliated workers, and even sending private security agencies to attack farmworkers protesting in front of the company headquarters in Chtouka Ait Bah.
The challenges of unionising and organising to defend workers’ rights and achieve higher wages from profitable produce sent to the EU and the UK have increased in recent years. Employers have used government Covid-19 subsidies to fatten profits, while the effects of the pandemic have weakened the trade union movement, as the ability of workers to meet in person and coordinate resistance strategies has been severely impaired. The Moroccan elections of September 2021 brought to power a far-right government bloc aligned with the national elites: the current Prime Minister, Aziz Akhannouch, was a previous Minister of Agriculture and one of the leading Moroccan billionaires (he is the CEO of a leading conglomerate company). Attacks on public sector employment and anti-strike legislation are now increasing.
The experience of Moroccan farmworkers illustrates that fruit and vegetables are not cheap because of supply and demand, so-called ‘natural’ economic processes: they are a desired commodity which is made to be cheap, and that cheapness does not come without a price. It rests on producers lowering their costs through poverty wages, dismantling and repressing workers’ struggles to defend their rights, and subjecting workers to inhumane and dangerous conditions.
Poor or inhumane working conditions maintain a cheap workforce, since protecting workers’ health costs money: money that neither local monopoly capital nor Global North supermarkets selling these products want to include in the price of the produce.
The solution is internationalism, as recently declared by the SDA:
One of the main tasks of our union is the contribution to the discussion of the state's agricultural development model and providing alternatives that serve the interests of the working class of our people. In order to do so, small farmers, fishermen, and workers in the forest sector, the actual producers of our food, are still marginalised by the official agricultural policy that serves the profits of capitalist exporters. The call to develop the demands and aspirations of all workers in the agricultural sector along with real agricultural development needs a high level of structured and flexible organization. It also entails strengthening cooperation with other organisations that are fighting for the same goals at the national, regional, and global levels”.
- 123Lyn Ossome and Sirisha Naidu, “The Agrarian Question of Gendered Labour,” Labour Questions in the Global South, 2021, 63–86.
- 124Karen E. Rignall, An Elusive Common: Land, Politics, and Agrarian Rurality in a Moroccan Oasis (Cornell University Press, 2021).
- 125ATTAC/CADTM Maroc, SDA, The working conditions of farmworkers and the alternative of food sovereignty. Souss-Massa Region: a case study, July 2022.