Morocco’s strawberry pickers and women’s economic empowerment

Sian Jones Gender, Her Series, Women's Economic Empowerment

Nearing the end of this month’s Her Series, Even It Up campaigner Sian Jones explains how the experiences of women workers in Morocco show why the High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment must focus on the issues that can really impact economic outcomes and leadership for women globally, including extreme inequality.

The agriculture sector plays a significant role in the Moroccan economy, not least because it employs around 40% of the country’s population. There has been a conscious push in recent years with strategic plans to ensure that the sector remains at the core of the country’s economic growth. One focus has been the production and exportation of berries. Investment from both private and public sources has meant that production is now at least 16 times higher than 20 years ago, with 75% of the goods being exported primarily to Europe. This has subsequently created new economic opportunities for many women in Morocco.

In fact a striking 75-90% of workers in Morocco’s growing berry sector are women, bringing about 20,000 women in the north of the country into productive work each year. Their experiences are testament to why the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment must fulfil its purpose (to help ‘improve economic outcomes for women and promote women’s leadership’) in a meaningful way.

A striking 75-90% of workers in Morocco’s growing berry sector are women, bringing about 20,000 women… into productive work each year

Morocco is among the largest exporters of strawberries in the world, and there are ongoing and ever-determined plans towards 2020 of increasing land use to grow larger quantities of berries. Of course this subsequently means that there are continued pressures on the farms and workers to keep up with the pace. We know that such growth, certainly in the context of the current global economic system, can come at a price for those at the bottom of the supply chain, especially where human rights and labour laws are not respected. This is important for Oxfam globally, who believes that ‘access to decent work and a living wage is a fundamental pathway out of poverty, and one of the best ways to counter growing inequality‘.

It is increasingly recognised that in the current global context, with a dominant economic model based on market fundamentalism, women’s contribution in the workplace may be good for economic growth, but economic growth is not necessarily good for women. As reflected in Oxfam’s paper Women and the 1%, the world’s poorest (the majority of whom are women) are failing to experience equal rewards from economic growth. It is nevertheless encouraging to know that more equal participation between women and men in the economy can drive both global economic growth and contribute to women’s economic empowerment. However, as noted in a 2015 report, if the current rate of progress does not improve, it will take another 118 years to achieve economic equality between women and men.

Morocco’s female strawberry pickers, in many cases, could possibly be regarded as a real and classic example of women’s low-paid labour facilitating greater profits for others. An Oxfam study conducted in 2009 and again in 2014 found that while the sector has been growing significantly and contributing to positive economic results, unfortunately working conditions within the supply chain have evolved in a ‘predominantly informal and precarious environment’. While it reveals how the strawberry pickers are experiencing several violations of their rights, exposing the abuse and discrimination many women face, the report Social Protection, Building Dignitynevertheless discusses how through Oxfam’s work with partners (influencing both public and private sectors) some producers have made efforts to take measures to improve the conditions.  It is interesting to note the role that the private sector can play regarding women’s economic empowerment, particularly where the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are implemented and respected.

The recent Intersectional Analysis of Women Workers in the Strawberry Sector of Morocco further examines the current limited opportunities women have to defend their rights and influence political decision making. Facing different forms of inequality and discrimination (the intersectionality), including expectations around their role in society, they are nevertheless driven by their desire for more autonomy. Despite challenges, where ‘their negotiation power is already reduced by the unequal relations between men and women’, they don’t present themselves as victims. They are proud to earn a salary and support their family. What they want is to have their rights respected, end violence and harassment, and reduce stereotypes to ensure their dignity is respected.

Oxfam’s work with local partners and key stakeholders in Morocco shows the potential that supporting women’s empowerment has. Contributing to ensure they have a more thorough knowledge of their rights and become leaders has driven long-term sustainable change across the sector. Many women’s lives have been transformed for the better through support of their capacity to increase decision making power, and support to become leaders for change that also promotes and embodies gender justice. Helping them to set up groups and associations further strengthens an ability to defend their rights.

Gaining ‘legal status’ by obtaining National ID documentation for example, equips the strawberry pickers to sign formal work contracts and be declared to social security. This can significantly improve their living conditions, including enabling their access to free health care services. Awareness raising activities, together with the influence from private sector importers for compliance, supports women’s empowerment to increasingly refuse jobs that do not offer the national minimum wage. Addressing economic inequality alongside gender issues is key.

Yet Oxfam’s work also reveals the different forms of inequalities and discrimination that continue to be significant obstacles to women’s economic empowerment. This is why now is a positive opportunity for the UN High Level Panel to show leadership and guidance. In order to achieve its goals, it must challenge the normalisation of discriminatory attitudes and systemic inequality, including structural causes of economic inequality, that are preventing women (particularly the poorest women) from fairly benefiting from such growth.

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Mara Brückner