The tragedy that occurred in Tangier, killing 28 workers at an illegal textile sweatshop, could happen to more than 2.4 million other Moroccan workers.
According to a 2018 report from the General Confederation of Enterprises in Morocco (CGEM), the informal sector represents 20% of the country’s gross domestic product.
At least 2.4 million Moroccans work in dire conditions, without social security, without medical insurance, without a retirement plan, and without any legal protection.
The textile industry alone makes up 54% of Morocco’s informal sector. This means that more than one million textile workers in the country, including mostly women, could be working in “secret” underground sweatshops.
Soon after the 28 workers drowned or were electrocuted — the investigation is still ongoing, local authorities in Tangier claimed they were unaware of the existence of the underground textile workshop.
In an attempt to quickly escape liability, official authorities described the industrial production unit as “secret” and “clandestine.”
Locals residing near the sweatshop, however, affirmed that the illegal production unit has been operating for more than twenty years.
In 2014, a Spanish documentary titled “El precio de la moda” (The Price of Fashion) recorded footage in at least three similar underground sweatshops where the most basic safety regulations are not respected.
Some of the production units that appeared on the documentary contained, similarly to the one where the tragedy occurred on Monday, two underground levels with poor ventilation and packed pathways.
By posing as businessmen, the documentary’s producers showed how the managers of these sweatshops were willing to overwork their employees in order to strike deals.
“My workers will work day and night to prepare your order,” one of the employers told the Spanish journalist after he inquired about the possibility of making a large order under a tight deadline.
While there are no accurate studies about the number of these sweatshops in Morocco, it is estimated to be in the thousands.
“This is not the first incident. Illegal units are operating across the country. They are in Rabat, Casablanca, Fez, and other regions,” the Secretary-General of the Democratic Labor Union (ODT), Ali Lotfi, told Morocco World News.
The advocate for workers’ rights considers employers who hire workers illegally as “human traffickers” who take advantage of Moroccans’ desperation to find jobs.
Besides the lack of safety in illegal workshops, Moroccan informal workers suffer overexploitation and below-standard remuneration.
A 2016 report by Spanish newspaper Economia Digital shed light on the working conditions in the Moroccan workshops of Spanish multinational Inditex. The company is the largest fashion group in the world. Its brands include Zara, Bershka, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti, and others.
According to its financial reports, as cited in Economia Digital’s report, Inditex has approximately 250 factories in Morocco, notably in Casablanca and Tangier.
Some unconfirmed reports claim that the sweatshop where 28 workers were killed was among the suppliers of Inditex. However, due to the production unit’s illegal status, these claims are yet to be verified.
More scandalous, however, is Economia Digital’s revelation that the workers in Inditex workshops receive a pittance as salary. As of 2020, their wage stands at MAD 2,638 ($296). Directors of the workshops, meanwhile, can receive a monthly salary of €2,304 ($2,794) — nearly ten times the salary of their workers.
Considering that the Spanish publication only visited some of the legal workshops, the situation would be significantly worse in illegal production units.
An older investigation by El Mundo in 2012 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. Monthly salaries, meanwhile, are lower than the legal minimum wage and do not exceed €200 ($242), the Spanish newspaper reported.
The figures ring the alarm bells about the urgency of tackling the issue of illegal production units and curbing the greed of employers who want to enlarge their profit margins at all costs.
Moroccans hope that no tragedy similar to the one in Tangier would ever occur again. But, unless authorities launch a rigorous war against the informal sector and provide alternatives for informal workers, nearly two and a half million Moroccans will remain in danger.