Dutch shrimps, Moroccan factories: fighting exploitation

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“We stand in solidarity and we are not afraid!” The women who peel Dutch shrimps in Moroccan processing plants complain of long working hours, low wages and trickery with contracts. Now they’re organising to fight for better pay and conditions.

There is a colourful mix of women at the trade union hall. Their brightly-coloured djellabas and headscarves contrast starkly with the white plastic coats and caps they wear to shell shrimps.

Fatima has been working in shrimp processing for 20 years. “When I needed a doctor in 2005, I found out my social insurance premium hadn’t always been paid. Since I raised it with my employer, he’s had it in for me. Women who work all year round, may only have six months’ social insurance premium paid, so the boss doesn’t have to give a permanent contract. They do whatever they like.”

Shimp shelling:

Dutch shrimps are small, greyish Crangon crangon shrimps from the North Sea. Many Dutch dealers send their shrimps to Morocco to be shelled. The work is done by women in large processing plants in Tangiers and Tetouan. The shelled shrimps are then shipped back to the Netherlands. Particularly at Jalil Mernissi’s company, which shells shrimps for various Dutch companies, the workers are angry about their pay and conditions. But according to the Moroccan trade union UMT, there are also complaints about the Dutch companies Klaas Puul and Heiploeg, which have plants in Tangier and Tetouan.

Minimum wage
In practice it doesn’t matter whether women have a contract or not, says Fatima’s boss, Jalil Mernissi. “There are two possible situations: they work either temporarily or permanently. That’s clear even without a contract.” Mr Mernissi works out the number of days worked based on the number of kilograms of shrimps peeled.

 

But that’s only permitted under certain conditions, according to a Labour Ministry spokesperson. “Employees have to earn at least the minimum wage [equivalent to around 200 euros a month, ed.]. If the wage for piecework at the end of the month is below the minimum, the employer has to pay the difference. And the maximum length of a working day is 10 hours.”

When Mr Mernissi is asked how he calculates the wage, he explains again how hard it is to keep the books. “Sometimes a woman comes to work with her sister’s identity papers, or even without any papers. How are we supposed to know who arrives and leaves when?”

Electronic clock-in
For this very reason, at Klaas Puul, the first Dutch shrimp dealer to set up in Tangier twenty years ago, they only employ women who have valid identity papers. “We use electronic badges which record the time women arrive and leave, how many kilograms they shell and even how much credit they have for the canteen. It works very well,” says manager Abdelouafi Bouaissa.

He says he can understand the reasons for the unrest at other companies. “The women who peel shrimp usually can’t read or write. This makes them a vulnerable group. We constantly explain to our workers that they have to come to work every day if they want to stay entitled to social security benefits, for example. Perhaps not all companies take the trouble.”

Exploitation
The reality is actually much darker, says Boubker Khamlichi, the UMT union representative for the shrimp workers. “Employers exploit the vulnerable position of these women. We can’t leave these women to their fate anymore.”

Many shrimp workers are breadwinners, either because they’re separated or their husband is unemployed. Often they only just manage to keep their head above water. For 13 hours shelling shrimps, Fatima earns around eight euros. After social insurance deductions, she barely has enough to buy groceries and pay the rent.