A 14-year old girl was among the 28 garment workers killed in a factory disaster in Tangier, Morocco, this week. Her mother says she had worked at the factory, an illegal sweatshop, for three years.
The workers were drowned or electrocuted after a flood caused a short circuit. Seventeen others were injured. The facility operated in an underground garage in a residential area with 130 workers, most of them women. A nearby resident rescued some of the workers by throwing a rope into the flooded factory.
“How could this factory have been a secret? Where were the labor inspectors? Where were the local government authorities? Where were the investors?” asked Amal El Amri, a representative in Morocco’s upper house of Parliament and Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) member.
Residents in the area say the sweatshop operated for more than 20 years.
“We must ensure a voice for these workers who have died, and for the many thousands more women workers who toil under the same dangerous conditions,” El Amri said. In January, a fire at another illegal textile factory in Tangier injured one person and destroyed the factory, where 400 people worked.
The UMT and Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT), both Solidarity Center partners, demanded an immediate investigation into the tragedy, and the CDT said in a statement that it holds the state, the government and the employers fully responsible for the workers’ deaths.
Fast Fashion Industry Spawns Illegal Factories
Across from Spain on Morocco’s northern coast, Tangier is a key hub of Morocco’s textile manufacturing. Countrywide, official statistics show 1,200 textile companies with 165,000 workers—27 percent of the country’s industrial employment.
Yet many factories in Morocco’s textile and leather industry—estimates range in the thousands—operate illegally, forcing workers to labor long hours for low pay in often dangerous conditions. A 2012 investigation revealed that workers in illegal Moroccan textile sweatshops work, on average, 55 to 65 hours per week—11 to 21 hours more than the legal limit.
Operating outside national labor laws or standards, illegal factories are a direct response to the demands of the fast fashion industry, in which large brands demand quick response to fashion changes and customer demands and so draw on subcontractors whose workforce is cheaper and its work arrangements informal.
With no job stability and few social protections, garment workers in the informal economy are subject to exploitation and abuse, with no health coverage, pensions or other social and legal protections. Some one-third of Morocco workers are in the informal economy, which accounts for 14 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
‘Companies Must Be Held Accountable’
As the global labor movement joins in calls for accountability in a supply chain where workers pay the price for cheap production, the Morocco Contribution Forum is urging the government to close all workplaces without health and safety protections and establish a policy to ensure severe penalties for companies operating outside the law.
Public officials must “improve the rights and living standard of marginalized people who are victims of oppression and violence, whether it is on the way to work, or in the workplace, and to provide them with the minimum conditions of human rights,” the Forum, a Solidarity Center partner, said in a statement.