M. Laetitia Cairoli, Girls of the Factory: A Year with the Garment Workers of Morocco

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M. Laetitia Cairoli, Girls of the Factory: A Year with the Garment Workers of Morocco (Gainesville: University Press of Florida 2011)

IN 1994-95 LAETITIA CAIROLI conducted ethnographic research among the garment factory "girls" of Fes in Morocco's Rif Mountains. The workers are universally called "girls" because it signifies that they are virgins, which in the great majority of cases is the case. The Qarawiyin mosque in Fes, established in the 9th century, is a centre of urban Sunni orthodoxy. This does not prevent Cairoli's subjects and their families from visiting saints' tombs and seers, like many Moroccans. Cairoli worked for three months in a garment factory in Ben Souda, one of four factory districts the state established outside Fes to encourage export processing. This rare experience for social scientists and labour historians in the Middle East and North Africa has great value in and of itself.

The passage of over 15 years might invalidate at least parts of an ethnography. There have been some changes and will be more. But, the main story is that things are the same, only more so. There were 786 garment factories in 1994-95 employing 95,000 workers. At the time of writing there were 872 garment factories--60% of them large firms--with 153,010 workers. (237) The apparent precision of the figures is an illusion of official statistics.

Although it never adopted Arab Socialism or any other radical political or economic doctrine, Morocco established a large public sector after gaining independence from France in 1956. State-led development floundered by the late 1970s, just as Western economic growth stalled after the thirty "glorious years" following World War II. Neo-liberal economic policies were imposed on Morocco (and throughout the global South) by the international financial institutions and the US government in the 1980s and 1990s. In response, there were several "IMF riots" in Morocco, including a three-day general strike and riot in Fes in December 1990. King Hassau II's brutally authoritarian regime introduced some political reforms in 1990-91. But, it also broke the already limited power of labour unions. Thirty textile factories in Fes were permanently shuttered, and a new labour regime was installed. (25)

Morocco's garment industry is based on unstable subcontracting arrangements. Factory owners import fabric from Europe; workers cut and sew it into garments; the finished goods are re-exported. The largest buyers are in Spain, France, and the UK. As Cairoli's Arabic tutor and principal male informant explained,

   [S]ince the [1990] strikes, we have even
   more girlsworking in the factories....
   Why? A girl does not strike. A girl is
   willing to work more than the [8] hours
   allotted by labor law [without overtime
   pay].... A girl does not have a skill ...
   So a boss can say to a girl, "Sew today,
   and then clean up the factory tomorrow."
   And if he has wheat at home to
   clean and work on, he can tell the girl
   to clean his wheat, clean his house, and
   then sleep with him, if he wants. (29)

This was largely confirmed by a factory owner who explained,

   When men and women do the same
   thing ... there is no question that the
   man's performance is better.... But.... I--we--all
   the owners do not hire men ...
   I myself prefer the lower productivity
   of women workers to the problems
   [making demands and refusing to work
   overtime] that men cause. (38)

Super-exploitation of girls and mostly unmarried young women is "rational" in this labour regime. The main component of value-added in garment-making is semi-skilled labour, except for the fabric cutters. Lower labour costs mean higher profits or--in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, which all have similar labour regimes--the capacity to compete with Asian countries with even lower wages but higher transportation costs. …