Mediterranean labour movements

delicious Moroccan vegetables

delicious Moroccan veggies

At the end of a recent trip to Morocco, we drove to Marrakech airport, leaving Essaouira before dawn for the 180km trip. I have never travelled this road in the morning before, and after a long drive under the sunrise on an empty road, we suddenly hit Chichaoua (pop. 16,000), which seemed like the busiest place on earth at 6:30 on a Wednesday morning in June.

There were trucks, trailers, market stalls and people everywhere.  The road was blocked with pick-up trucks packed with people.  As in many Muslim countries, in more rural areas of Morocco it is mainly men who are visible out and about, but there were even vehicles full of women.  We ground to a halt and I began to worry about missing my flight….

My Moroccan friends explained that these were all day labourers.  Every day, men and women wait at the side of the road to be picked up and transported to farms to pick fruit and vegetables.

Successive EU-Morocco accords, designed eventually to lead to a greater EU-Mediterranean free trade area, have opened up the huge EU market to Moroccan produce.  This tackles a big gripe I heard often on my first visit to Morocco in 2001: that European was closed to Moroccan agricultural produce.

The globalisation of labour movements and of consumer tastes has its pros and cons.  This policy has win-win potential for the EU (in tackling illegal immigration) and Morocco (in local job creation and wealth generation). When I got home, I even found Moroccan fruit and veg in my local supermarket in the UK. However, the names of the producers were not Arabic – they were Spanish and Portuguese.  I wonder if the accords have simply enabled European producers to profit from cheap labour on the southern side of the Med?

The sight of dozens of unskilled day labourers in trucks reminded me of a documentary I saw in 2007, “El Ejido,” about illegal Moroccan immigrant labour in the huge agri-enterprises of Almeria, Spain.  The advantages to Moroccan families of salary remittances and to the European consumer of low price salad vegetables grown under plastic all year round by cheap labour are undermined by the environmental, personal health and social catastrophes – not to mention the moral one – of what charities have called “de facto state sanctioning of slavery in 21st century Europe.” If local jobs can prevent this kind of exploitation, so much the better.

Back on the road to the airport, I was pleased to see local employment opportunities, even if the work is hard and largely unskilled.  I am convinced that family and social cohesion is important in creating stable societies and that mass economic migration undermines this.  But when I heard that the average daily wage on a Moroccan farm is 30-50dh (around €3-4.50), I easily understood why someone might pay to cross the sea in a leaky fishing boat to work for €20-€30 a day and even live in a shack made of cardboard and plastic next to a cess pit of chemical fertilisers and risk non-payment, degradation, violence and worse to earn a sub-survival wage.

chilies at Had Dra market

Chillies at Had Dra market

We can only hope that those who choose to stay at home can improve their standards of living, education and purchasing power to contribute to an equitable development in rural Morocco.  Wherever they are created, it is important that the quality of jobs created by increased exports or foreign direct investment is verified to ensure that local people are offered adequate pay and appropriate conditions.  This may, of course, mean that our winter strawberries are more expensive.

But that’s not the end of the story.  Anecdotally, I have heard that Moroccans are reluctant these days to cross the Mediterranean because they know the problems faced by the Spanish economy (and they may also have been undercut by even cheaper labour from West Africa).  Others are returning to build businesses back home with money made in Europe during the boom years.  And ironically, according to this Dutch report, the impact of the Eurozone crisis has led Spanish people to seek jobs in Morocco!

Is any job better than no job?  How far would you go to find work? If you have opinions or know of research in this area, feel free to comment!

This post first appeared at on July 15, 2012

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.