Each day, thousands of “cargo women” carry heavy bundles across the Spanish-Moroccan border. They are exploited and put their lives at risk.
Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco, sprawls up the hills. From the top, the fence separating Africa and Europe can be seen easily, like a scar surging from the Mediterranean Sea. It cuts the beach in two and sneaks its way across the hills into the distance.
It was 5 o’clock in the morning when Soad, 22, and her sister Umeima, 20, got out of a taxi. They came from Fnideq, a Moroccan village only a few kilometres away from the fence, and waited in the dark for the border gate to open so that they could cross to Ceuta. They were not the only ones. Though El Tarajal border gate doesn’t open until 7am, hundreds of women were already waiting in the chilly morning breeze.
The Moroccan police moved into place when the gate was about to open. As Umeima told me later, this was the usual calm before the storm.
“Everybody started pushing and shoving, trying to jump the queue,” she explained. “Some men literally jumped over the crowd, trying to be first at the gate; they stepped on the women.” The human swarm became an unstoppable force, and pushed Soad and Umeima towards the police, who used their truncheons and belt buckles to try to restore order. The policemen hit the sisters, but the women couldn’t stop; it wasn’t that they weren’t willing to, but the crowd dictated their movement.
In the sweat and dust, Soad didn’t understand what was happening. When the crowd ripped her djellaba, not even her undone hijab could mask the fear in her eyes. She lost sight of her sister. Her nose was stuck against someone’s back.
“She was trapped between two bodies,” said Umeima. “Then the police closed the gate and started raining blows on anything that was moving.” This made matters worse. Soad tried to run, but she fell and was trampled; her head hit the concrete.
If Soad hadn’t fallen that morning, she would have crossed the border and walked a mile and a half to get to the warehouses around Ceuta. After some bargaining with the owner of the goods, she would have used masking tape to secure some Chinese-made shoes to her waist, maybe a bright blanket against her chest, very likely some ladies’ underwear to her left thigh and quite as many men’s briefs to her right leg.
She would then have covered everything with her djallaba and hauled a massive 50 or 80 kilos bale, already packed by the owner, onto her back, filled with consumer goods, including endless packets of crisps and nappies. A fragile cloth kept it all in place.
Soad would then have stumbled all the way back to the border, where another stampede was likely. Her legs may well have given way under the weight of her load and the crush. Once back in Morocco, she would have handed the goods to the client waiting in a car park 500 metres from the border and been paid €20 for her trouble.
None of that happened on 23 March, though; Soad didn’t make it to Ceuta. After the blow to her head, the sisters went home.
“We stopped at the doctor’s,” said Umeima. Soad was given an injection, had an x-ray of her head and told that she was all right. “When we got home, though, the pain continued. She couldn’t sleep because of the headache.”
The day after the incident, Soad and her sister went back to the doctor’s. He didn’t say anything definite, but insisted that she had to be rushed to Tetouan’s hospital. Soad’s dark eyes were already clouded by the pain. Her mother held her hand tight in the ambulance; her pulse was irregular. Other family members followed in a car. Soad was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Soad had a son of four and was divorced. According to the family, she had been working at an uncle’s bakery before becoming a “cargo woman”. She had been doing this for a month when the crowd trampled on her, and on her son’s future.
Following an autopsy, the Moroccan Health Ministry said that Soad had died due to complications from a heart attack she suffered at the border. The family does not believe it. “The x-ray images from the same day that she was trampled were never handed to us,” insisted Umeima. “Neither was the Coroner’s report. She was never ill and she didn’t have any sort of heart problem.”
Officially, Soad is one of five women to have lost their lives in 2017 as a result of the daily stampedes on the Moroccan side of the border. The latest two victims died on 28 August. Unofficially, though, the porters insist that this year alone the border has taken the lives of many more women. “The Moroccan government and police threaten the families not to speak out,” one porter claimed. Sometimes officials offer the families economic support in exchange for their silence; the support never reaches them.
It is legitimate to ask why there are no measures in place to prevent such deaths. Why are the women working like beasts of burden on the border of 21st century Europe?
The answer is simple: despite this atypical form of commerce (as it is usually described) being the main economic driving force in this part of Africa, it is unregulated. It is neither illegal nor fully legal, resulting in a total absence of safety measures.
Why not make it regulated to provide job security and safety for the porters? As the Association for Human Rights of Andalusia (APDHA) explains in its 2016 report, it is because the border between Cueta and Morocco is not actually a trade crossing. It is only there for people to cross on foot or in vehicles, but not goods. When Spain joined the EU in 1986, it demanded that Ceuta should be excluded from the EU Customs Union, to give the enclave some tariff advantages. Furthermore, Morocco refuses to acknowledge Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta, officially at least.
Thus, there is unregulated trade, carried out on the backs of the porters or in individual cars or even on motorbikes. Morocco regards such goods carried by an individual as personal effects.
It is also important to bear in mind that, from the 19th century, as an open port Ceuta has been exempted from most national Spanish taxes. That means no VAT (between 4 and 21 per cent), but a Tax on Products, Services and Imports (IPSI), at a much smaller rate of between 0.5 and 10 per cent.
Hence, it is much cheaper for traders to get their goods into Morocco through Ceuta, instead of, for example, Tangiers, where they would have to pay Moroccan VAT of 20 per cent plus a 20 per cent national tariff. Going through Ceuta they only pay the IPSI, the carrier’s charge and a bribe to the local Moroccan authorities and police, usually no more than another 10 per cent.
There is, of course, a legal way of getting goods into Morocco, but it’s more expensive than unregulated trade, and the only way of doing the latter is to have a porter to take the goods across the border, one bale at a time, as personal effects. The “cargo women”, therefore, are a key part of trade between Ceuta and Morocco: atypical trade makes up 70 per cent of Ceuta’s economic activity. Ferrer-Gallardo, an independent researcher on the matter, provides further data to support this: in 2015, 25.7 per cent of the town’s income came from the IPSI tax on imports and, 46 per cent of Ceuta’s imports were later exported to Morocco. That represents €405 million every year.
It is obvious that this trade allows Spanish traders to avoid customs duties and taxes, but what about Morocco? It would be reasonable to think that these low-cost imports are unfair competition for the country’s own products, but it is believed that Morocco tolerates them because they provide an income to many in the north of the country, which is neglected by the government in Rabat. The American Chamber of Commerce in Casablanca estimates that 45,000 people live directly off this trade, while another 400,000 may benefit from it indirectly. If atypical commerce was done away with, significant social tensions might follow.
The toughest part of this valuable trade falls, literally, on women’s backs
Though the traders at Ceuta’s industrial area are nearly all male, as are the clients on the other side of the border and the dock workers who unload the goods, most porters are women. The toughest part of this trade worth millions of euros falls, literally, on women’s backs.
APDHA says that according to the Moroccan NGO Nadha, “80 per cent of the women in Fnideq (Morocco) work in Ceuta, 25 per cent of them as domestic service and the other 75 per cent as either porters or prostitutes.” The porters are predominantly women between 35 and 60 years old; most are single mothers, divorced or widowed; some are married. Most are uneducated and have no other way of getting into the labour market. In fact, over 80 per cent of women in this part of Morocco are illiterate, according to 2013 figures from CEAR Marruecos. Arguably the main thing that these women have in common is their difficulty in finding another source of income and the fact that they’re the main breadwinners at home.
That is the case for Asma, a 24-year-old porter who goes to the border every day from her home in Tetouan. “I’ve left my phone number and CV everywhere,” she tells me, “but no one has called.” Asma trained as a hair stylist, but she’s out of work, so she tried her luck at the border. “I’m married and with three daughters, this is the only thing that allows me to pay the €100 rent and repay a loan that I borrowed to buy the furniture.”
For most women in Morocco, it is difficult to get work which involves dealing with members of the public, as their husbands won’t accept such “exhibitionism”. For many, work outside the home is frowned upon; it is the husband who is supposed to provide for his family. This, claims Asma, isn’t always what happens. “In Morocco, men stay at home and expect their women to work and provide for them. My husband is unemployed, so I’m the one providing for the family. He hasn’t got a passport to cross the border. He could apply for one, but he won’t do it. The problem is not so much that he doesn’t work, but that he insults me and beats me, sometimes. I’ll leave him when my daughters are older.”
‘Most of the goods carried by the women come from illegal warehouses’
Asma walks slowly, leaning on a crutch, past the warehouses in Ceuta’s industrial area. She limps from a sprained ankle she got in one of the daily stampedes on the Moroccan side of the border. “I’m happy today, because they’re paying between €25 and €35 per bale, and they’re not too heavy,” she says. She negotiates a price with the traders and is, I notice, always smiling. “It’s only on the Moroccan side of the border that there’s chaos, everything’s very well organised here.”
That is true to some extent. On the Spanish side of the border, the police set up queuing areas, demarcated by portable fences, and stretch the lines to prevent large crowds. That doesn’t completely stop stampedes when the queue is too slow, though. When that happens, the police don’t hesitate to use their truncheons.
Since Ceuta’s industrial area is located on private land, the police only intervene in certain situations; the warehouse owners are required to hire their own security. The 12 private guards are arranged partly through the traders’ associations. That’s not a lot considering that some 4,000 porters cross the border every day.
“Most of the goods carried by the women come from illegal warehouses, so it is not fair to expect the rest of us to pay for the private security,” insists Alí Ayad, one of the traders.
According to APDHA’s report, some warehouses “are no more than unregistered depots for import companies, belonging to traders from Casablanca, Tangiers, Barcelona, Brussels or Shanghai. They buy them through front men to store the goods, but not for any legitimate trade. Once the goods are on the other side of the border, they will continue their way through Africa, not having paid any tariffs, without having to formally hire the porters or to pay taxes for their business.”
APDHA insists on the urgent need to implement measures to protect the porters: trolleys or conveyor belts should be allowed at the border crossing to carry the goods; there should be an upper weight limit of, say, 20 kilos, for bales; and rest rooms, benches and shaded areas should also be built to improve the working conditions and safety of the porters and to cater for their basic needs. Finally, the legal status of the traders should be reviewed and controlled, and, above all, the work of the porters should be regulated, so their basic labour rights are guaranteed.
‘I’ve come all this way to get money; I can’t go back home empty handed’
When Asma joins the queue to go back to Morocco, it is short and orderly. An hour later, it has grown into a huge crowd. When the gate is opened, groups of women try to jump the queue; Asma joins them. “I’ve come all this way to get money” she mutters. “I can’t go home empty-handed.” Two men argue about who’s first. The police shout for everyone to calm down, but no one’s listening. The crowd gets restless, until it becomes uncontrollable. The police close the gate, crushing everyone in the first row, while those at the back continue to push. Asma can’t breathe, and falls to the ground. The bale is cut from her back and she is rolled onto her side while someone calls an ambulance.
She’s been lucky today; she just fainted. Tomorrow she may not be so lucky as long as the trade remains unregulated.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.