‘We are now treated the same as men. We have exactly the same rights’

How women farm workers in North Africa, specifically Morocco, are achieving justice on the job.

Shepherd in rural Morocco. Image credit Scott Wallace for the World Bank via Flickr (CC).

In Africa women grow 70 percent of the continent’s food and those working in agriculture are paid so little, they often have a hard time feeding their families. Jobs at orchards, olive groves, vineyards and other farms and agro-industrial complexes are often precarious, informal and seasonal. Agriculture is also one of the most dangerous forms of work in the world, with workers on commercial farms exposed to hazardous pesticides and often not properly trained to use dangerous machinery.

More than 450 million people work in supply chain-related jobs like agriculture and workers in the global supply chain are key to the global economy. Yet multinationals compete with each other to reduce production costs by lowering labor costs. The result is often jobs that are insecure and informal, involving dangerous workplaces, unpaid overtime and even forced labor.

The hazardous agro-industrial work environment often is compounded for women workers who are vulnerable to sexual harassment, physical abuse and other forms of gender-based violence at work.

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

Our experience in Morocco is no different. There, the most marginalized workers frequently labor in agriculture for poverty wages with few rights—and where the reach of national laws is weak. Exploited on the job, women typically carry most of the household burden as well.

Yet women in Morocco, who comprise nearly half of the 4 million workers who pick grapes, harvest olives and cultivate fruit trees, are standing up for their rights to decent wages, safe working conditions and for equal opportunities as their male co-workers.

In Meknes, a fertile area 90 miles east of Rabat, one of the country’s largest trade unions, the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT), and the agro-industry employer, Les Domaines Brahim Zniber—the seventh largest company in Morocco, producing 30 million bottles of wine and 500 tons of extra virgin olive oil per year—negotiated a collective bargaining agreement.

The contract, which was originally negotiated in 2015 but was expanded in 2019 to cover more than 1,200 agricultural workers on six large farms, raised wages, gave workers access to health care and a nurse-staffed clinic, improved job safety and ensured access to toilets and regular meal breaks.

Under the 2015 agreement—the first-ever in Morocco’s agricultural sector—workers for the first time won formal employment contracts with job security, paid leave and other social protections. Crucially, because women were at the negotiating table, they won protection from being fired when they marry (and so might get pregnant), maternity leave, time off to care for sick children and child education benefits.

Dozens of workers who cultivate, process and pack apples, peaches, pears and grapes at Zniber spoke about some of the benefits of the contract with researchers at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

Prior to the agreement, said one woman working at Domaine Zniber, “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.”

“Before the bargaining agreement, we didn’t have the right to work if we were pregnant. So we used to hide our bellies,” said another farm worker. “After the bargaining agreement we can go to work proud of our pregnancy.”

In its case study of the bargaining process and outcomes, the ICRW found that through the bargaining agreement, women made key workplace gains in reducing gender discrimination and improving their wages and working conditions. ICRW’s in-depth research process involved a series of field visits, interviews and focus groups with rural women, as well as interviews with union leaders, government officials and others in Meknes, Morocco, between September 2017 and July 2018. Workers reported that their wages were more stable and predictable and that they knew how compensation changed with different tasks and job categories. Women workers also felt that men and women workers are paid equally for equal work because of the collective bargaining agreement. The bargaining process, the study found, also had facilitated broader social dialogue among workers and their unions, employers and the government. Crucially, the report found that if labor laws were consistently followed across the supply chain, workers would receive an additional 3 percent of in wages and benefits.

Women also helped negotiate equal access to jobs enabling the women farm workers, who previously were blocked from “male” jobs, like truck driving, access to generally higher paying jobs like tractor driving and tree pruning.

According to Nezha Chafik, another farm worker at Domaines Zniber who spoke with the Solidarity Center, “women are now able to demand their rights equally to men.”

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

Nurturing women leaders, achieving gender equality at work

The contract didn’t emerge out of nowhere. It followed a multi-year education and training effort by the CDT, with support from the international worker rights organization, Solidarity Center, which concentrated on working conditions in the orchards, olive groves and vineyards and paid particular attention to gender equality. Launched in 2007, the trainings 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 [and that this] 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 articulated 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,” Saida Bentahar, a member of CDT’s executive committee, told us.

Standing up to supply chains takes collective action

Individually, women farm workers face insurmountable odds changing the practices that govern global supply chains. Yet through their union, women farm workers 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,” Hayat Khomssi, a farm worker at Zniber told the Solidarity Center. “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 give 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.”

Further Reading