Nearly half of the 4 million workers who labor in Morocco’s agricultural fields are women, yet they receive less pay and are granted fewer opportunities to improve their wages or working conditions than their male co-workers.
But through their union, the Confédération Démocratique du Travail (CDT), women workers in Morocco’s fertile Meknes region are leveling the playing field, as a new Solidarity Center video illustrates.
More than 1,000 workers at the Domaines Brahim Zniber agro-industrial complex in 2015 negotiated a landmark collective bargaining agreement that raised wages, and provided access to health care and bathroom and meal breaks.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, the country’s first in the farm sector, “when we are sick, we can go to a doctor,” says Maskini Fatiha, a farm worker on the Domaines Zniber.
Crucially, because women were at the bargaining table, the agreement protects women from being fired when they marry and includes access to maternity leave and time off to care for sick children. Women now can receive training for higher paid jobs, like tree pruning, from which they were previously excluded.
“The gap between male workers and female workers used to be huge,” says Hayat Khomssi, a farm worker at Domaines Zniber. “Men were eligible for bonuses that weren’t granted to women, which made them feel inferior.” Women are now allowed to prune and trim trees, she says, “and enjoy equal wages as men.”
Years of gender equality training by the CDT and Solidarity Center and their ongoing support for collective action led to women taking a strong role in negotiating the agreement, which has set a standard that other agro-industrial complexes are set to follow.
“It’s important for us to get the message out to workers to join the union”—Abelina Ramírez Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“I decided to join the national caravan [in 2017] from San Quintín to Mexico City,” says Ramírez. “I joined the coordinating team because neither [of the organizations leading the strike] had a woman leader who could speak to any of these issues, and that’s where I got fully involved,” she says, speaking through a translator. (Ramírez discusses her work here.)
The strike drew international attention to the conditions of the region’s roughly 80,000 workers who pick berries and tomatoes for 160 different agro-industiral companies, and workers ultimately won wage increases, boosting pay from approximately $4 per day to $8-$10.
Ramírez, now alternate secretary of gender equality for the National Independent and Democratic Union of Farmworkers (Sindicato Independiente Nacional Democrático de Jornaleros Agrícolas, SINDJA), was among speakers at the recent Solidarity Center conference in Los Angeles, “Realizing a More Fair Global Food Supply Chain.”
In an interview with the Solidarity Center, Ramírez says workers are still fighting for their original 14 core demands, among which is onsite medical facilities. Workers who are injured or fall ill in the fields must be transported long distances to receive care, and some have died in transit, she says.
Further, despite the wage increase, farmworker pay is still comparable to wages paid in much poorer countries, and farmworkers say a national wage category for them should be created, as exists for carpenters and other professional workers.
“What we’re fighting for is a professional-level salary because we see the work we do—cutting, picking and packing—as part of a professional category, and we’re not being respected,” says Ramírez.
Women Farmworkers Struggle to Care for Their Children
Like many women and men in Mexico’s southern Oaxaca region, Ramirez saw an opportunity to improve her livelihood when a labor recruiter showed up promising good wages for picking berries and tomatoes far north, in San Quintín.
“When there are no options because of poverty, we end up migrating,” says Ramírez, who has picked berries for 13 years.
Most mothers who migrate for work take their children but, once in the fields, find no public services and no child care, and “that’s when you realize this crude reality of what moving has meant—you can’t provide for your children and give them an education,” she says. Unable to afford decent housing on the low wages they are paid, many farm laborers are forced to live in company or government encampments—each family occupying a space between 9 square feet and 13 square feet, with shared bathrooms and laundry.
“That’s why it’s important for us to get the message out to workers to join the union, she says. “It’s important for them to realize that together, we can join forces and go up against the employers and the government and get a better life for ourselves and our families.”
Ramírez holds workshops on labor rights, including gender equality, and now seven women trained by the union meet with women farmworkers to encourage them to take part. She reaches the women by “starting with issues that matter to them: They care about child care, medical attention,” says Ramírez.
As she experienced during the 2015 strike, when “everybody joined, my family, my children joined, we got our signs and we went out,” Ramirez says “we knew that we could achieve something if we all went out.”
And that’s why Ramírez sees union organizing as fundamental to improving worker rights.
“Because coming together, through our unity, we’re going to achieve the changes we’re striving for.”
Around the world, farmworkers typically are not covered by labor laws and are prevented from exercising their fundamental legal rights, namely to form unions and bargain collectively, says Jeff Vogt, director of Rule of Law for the Solidarity Center.
Sponsored by the Solidarity Center, the Food Chain Workers Alliance and UCLA Labor Center, the event gathered farm worker activists and food justice advocates in Los Angeles to share strategies to build worker power, create decent work in the fields and demand greater justice across global food chains.
One-third of workers around the world labor in agricultural supply chains—planting, harvesting, transporting goods, retail—yet wages are a small fraction of what it costs to bring food to your table, says Vogt.
In Tunisia, where 61 percent of farmworkers are low-wage, temporary employees with no job security, the Tunisian federation of labor (UGTT) waged a nationwide campaign to cover farmworkers in labor laws.
Beginning in 2014, the UGTT negotiated a collective framework agreement with the government and employers that regulates safety and health, provides social protections, and guarantees the basic rights of labor.
The UGTT’s advocacy campaign is now engaging workers to inform them about their new rights. “It is a long fight that we will continue until we get the victory for all workers,” says Tahri, speaking through a translator.
Across the globe in Los Angeles, Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) Local 770 is working on living wage initiatives to raise the minimum wage and paid sick leave, and has launched an apprenticeship programs for meat cutters it hopes to expand to other food workers.
Throughout, the union is educating workers on their rights on the job, says UFCW Local 770 President John Grant. “We view workplaces, especially union workplaces as places where workers put forward their voice for what’s important,” he says.
“In the community, you have voice in deciding, for example, whether there will be a park. But without a union, you don’t have democracy in the workplace to decide what’s going on,” Grant says.
Agnieszka Fryszman, a law partner at Cohen, Milstein, discussed three cases that utilized the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) to see justice for workers trafficked in food supply chains.
One involves rural Cambodian villagers who say they were trafficked for forced labor in the shrimp processing industry in Thailand. A coalition led by the Solidarity Center, filed an amicus brief on June 1 in support of the seven workers who had brought their suit based in part under the TVPRA, which in 2008 was amended to extend civil liability to those who “knowingly benefit” from the trafficking of persons in their supply chains.
Adrienne DerVartanian, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration and Labor Rights, Farmworker Justice, noted the importance of educating lawmakers about challenges farmworkers face and empowering women farmworkers who are especially vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse in the fields.
As participants discussed how to go forward, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau says when we talk about taking the next step for food workers, “we are talking about unstoppable forces against repression, be they government or be they corporations.”
“Our approach is to challenge systems and create access to capital,” says Azusena Favela, director of programs and operations, Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN). Working with the 50,000 street vendors across Los Angeles, LURN piloted a loan program for vendors to access the resources they need to improve their own economic conditions while championing laws that enable vendors to freely operate.
“The biggest misconception is that street vendors choose to do this. Most times its not a choice. It’s basic survival many times,” she says, describing the long hours involved beginning with procuring goods to sell for long hours throughout the day.
“We understand that if it were not for street vending, street vendors probably would not have opportunity to survive in a city as expensive as LA.”
“Our goal is to get everyone the benefit of a union and fight for every worker the same as if they had a collective bargaining agreement,” Hicks says.
Lorenzo Rodríguez Jiménez, general secretary of the National Independent and Democratic Union of Farmworkers (SINDJA) in Mexico, discussed the struggle to form a union of farmworkers in an environment in which many unions are government-backed and not run in the interest of workers.
Sarah Gammage, director of gender, economic empowerment and livelihoods at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), emphasized that it is “really important to remind us of the importance of organizing” a theme echoed throughout the day, as worker advocates and their food justice allies began building on their mutual strength and vision across global borders.
“Now more than ever we see the need to organize across borders to tackle corporate global supply chains” that keep workers from retail and farms in low wages,” says Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer and chief officer of the California Labor Federation.
“We need to learn from each other to learn to organize more.”
Pulaski helped open a day-long conference, “Realizing a More Fair Global Food Supply Chain,” which gathered farm worker activists and food justice advocates to explore farmworker organizing strategies, alliances to support worker rights across the food chain, legal initiatives to ensure decent work and the importance of workers in the advancement of sustainability and justice as our food moves from farm to table.
“We are talking about a whole distribution system that is based on low-wage work, an economic model that relies on low wages in restaurants, retail, farms,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “Today is about changing that.”
One way to improve worker rights in global supply chains involves workers coming together to demand their rights, and union activists from Mexico, Morocco and Washington state shared their successful strategies organizing farmworkers.
Speaking on the first panel, “Build Real Voice and Real Work for Workers,” Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Washington state, described how he joined with co-workers on farms in Washington state for a two-cent an hour raise in 2013. They went on to champion laws that ensured farmworkers would receive their wages from employers who he estimates engaged in wage theft totaling $850,000.
“One thing I want to emphasize is how important it is for us to organize,” says Torres, speaking through a translator. “I am proud to represent workers.”
In Morocco, where the Democratic Labor Federation (CDT) organized more than 1,000 farmworkers on a large agro-industrial complex, the union focused on empowering women throughout the process, says Saida Bentahar, a member of the CDT executive committee.
“For women working in the agricultural fields, women started to learn about their rights and how to discuss and negotiate,” says Bentahar. “Women also managed to have their voices heard during negotiations” and as a result, they won first-ever health care and education opportunities for their children and can work in higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs previously open only to men.
“Now women benefit from many advantages they would not have had without the collective bargaining agreement,” she says.
Food justice advocates shared how they incorporate the rights of workers along the global agricultural supply chain during the second morning panel, a strategy session on models of cooperation.
“When we say agricultural food chain workers, we mean farm workers, fish workers, meat processing and poultry processing workers, those who truck the food and workers in grocery stores, retail chains, restaurants, and street vendors,” says Joann Lo, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance in Los Angeles.
Lo says her organization forrmed as the sustainable food movement took off and consumers began asking how far their food traveled and was it fresh and sustainable—but left workers out of the conversation. “We need to ask: Are the jobs sustainable for workers in the global supply chain?” she says.
“The power of procurement most powerful tool we have,” says Clare Fox, executive director at the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Fox described how her organization successfully moved the LA Unfired School District—which spends $150 million a year on food—to commit to ensuring 15 percent of the food it sources meets a baseline of fair labor, animal welfare and nutrition.
The panel also included moderator Robert Eggers, president of the LA Kitchen and Ryan Zinn, regenerative projects manager at the family-owned organic, fair trade company, Dr. Bronner’s.
Stop back for more coverage of the afternoon sessions!
Worker rights advocates from across the Middle East and North Africa strategized and networked over three days in Casablanca, Morocco. Caption: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Ending human trafficking. Ensuring all employers treat workers fairly. Giving voice to migrant workers around the world. Creating a world in which women are treated equally to men.
These are some of the broad goals participants at the Solidarity Center Forum on Decent Work Forum for Agricultural Women and Domestic Workers identified in a morning ice breaker on the final day of the November 29–December 1 conference in Casablanca.
“If I had a magic wand, I would do away with all oppression. I would do away with all inequalities,” says Farah Abdallah, with the National Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL).
Sponsored by the Solidarity Center and the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) in Morocco, the Forum includes representatives of unions and worker associations from Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco.
Creating Positive Change Takes Collective Action
Making positive change takes the kind of collective strength workers gain in unions—Kalthoum Barkallah. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Participants proposed lobbying government and advocating for national laws covering worker rights as key steps forward. For instance, several participants discussed the need to press for an end to the kefala sponsorship system in Arab Gulf countries which ties migrant workers to their employers, effectively denying them all fundamental rights.
Campaigning for ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions like those covering domestic worker rights also is key, participants say, as is regulating labor brokers who often charge migrant workers exorbitant fees and give them false information on wages and working conditions.
Yet as Kalthoum Barkallah pointed out, it takes collective action to successfully press for laws and create broad change. And collective action means workers joining together in unions or associations—and connecting with other kindred groups.
“One association cannot achieve a lot. You must have a network of people and organizations for our lobbying efforts to be strong enough to change the mind of decision makers,” says Barkallah, Solidarity Center senior program officer in Tunisia, who led the day’s sessions.
Bouhaya Adiabdelali, a farm worker and union steward from Morocco, joined more than two dozen worker rights advocates for a Solidarity Center forum in Casablanca. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“We have seen throughout our conference that the conditions for decent work do not exist in many places. It is incumbent upon us as civil society to address that.”
“No worker is an unorganizable,” says Elizabeth Tang, general secretary for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), sharing her experiences working with domestic workers in Hong Kong, SAR and around the world. “Women, men, migrant, old, young—they all can join unions, they can all be organized.”
Tang gave the example of Malaysia, where it is not legal for migrant workers to form unions. Yet domestic workers “take great risk to win their rights” and have now formed an organization and are the newest IDWF affiliate.
Farm workers in Meknes El Hajeb, Morocco, described how they improved their working conditions through collective bargaining, and domestic workers from across the region shared how the abuse they endured in employer households ended when they joined unions and became covered by contracts.
The bottom line, says Marie Constant, a domestic worker from Madagascar working in Lebanon: “Within a union one may fight together.”
Adoracion Salvador Bunag plans to share with other domestic workers the strategies she learned at the Solidarity Center Decent Work Forum. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
For forum participants, the conference served as a springboard for moving forward with strategies for carrying out campaigns to improve the rights of domestic workers and farm workers.
“This dialogue is not going to stop here,” says Saida Ouaid, CDT executive board member and coordinator for programs covering women and migration. “It will be further conveyed here through our institutions.”
“I have learned a lot from this forum and I will able to share it with my fellow domestic workers in Jordan,” says Adoracion Salvador Bunag, a domestic worker from the Philippines working in Morocco.
“As we move forward we will implement what we learned here,” says Hanan Laawina, a Morocco farm worker in Meknes El Hajeb.
“What is being talked about here is kind of stuff that is real and when I go back to work, I can speak from a position of strength when advocating for our rights,” she says.
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