A great disparity: profit vs poverty in the Moroccan tomato sector

15 May 2013

In our Morocco hotspot, Fairfood International focuses on the tomato sector in the Souss-Massa-Drâa region of Morocco, known for various labour issues. To that end, Fairfood recently attended the Tomato Forum in Rome (15-16 May) alongside dozens of tomato producers and retailers looking to obtain the latest updates on global supply, demand and consumer trends. Taking place at the same time, 1,500 Moroccan agricultural workers were demonstrating at the Ministry of Employment in Rabat seeking better wages and reasonable working hours. The two simultaneous events demonstrate the clear juxtaposition of the enormous profit of the large companies producing, exporting and selling tomatoes globally and the struggle of the workers on the ground to make a living wage in Morocco, the 6th largest exporter of tomatoes in the world.

Despite the fact that global tomato consumption has tripled over the last 30 years, Moroccan agricultural workers who work in the greenhouses where tomatoes are cultivated for export receive painfully low wages, work long hours with little or no safety equipment and don’t always have legal employment contracts. While companies should take responsibility and ensure that tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables they import from Morocco are made under fair labour conditions, they often don’t. This leaves the Moroccan agricultural workers no other choice than to demand that the government both properly enforce existing legislation and enact more comprehensive legislation that guarantees decent working conditions.

Millions of tomatoes are cultivated on Moroccan soil annually, mostly in greenhouses. Much of these are exported to Europe where they end up in our grocery stores. From November to April tens of thousands of Moroccans work long days in these greenhouses, often without critical safety equipment like gloves that could protect them from the pesticides that are being used. Many live in derelict housing and must take poor and often dangerous transport to work. Fairfood has teamed up with a local research team in the Souss-Massa-Drâa region to investigate the working conditions in the agricultural sector and is gaining insights into the people and stories connected to the fresh fruit and vegetables in our local shops.

Expanding markets and opportunities for all?
In Rome, company representatives travelled from all over the world to attend the Tomato Forum, which was held at an upscale hotel. While Fairfood was pleased to see that this year, for the first time, sustainability was put on the agenda of the conference; social and labour issues were barely touched upon. As the only NGO present, Fairfood was the only one to raise difficult questions about companies’ knowledge of unfair labour conditions and their efforts to improve these conditions.

At the Tomato Forum we learned that tomatoes have become even more popular than bananas in recent years and companies at the conference proudly shared their annual turnover figures, some of which were over 500 million euros. Talk of expanding tomato markets was also on the Forum agenda and while growing markets are good for the industry, the Moroccan workers who cultivate, pick and pack these tomatoes are left out of the equation. This leads Fairfood to ask: shouldn’t companies first ensure that the products that they sell are made under fair and humane labour conditions, before they talk about expanding their markets and seeking even greater sales opportunities?

In this video Moroccan agricultural workers demonstrate in Rabat. In the video the man in front is highlighting the disparity in wages, working hours, the absence of rights, the absence of dialogue and demands social justice and respect for labour laws, while the demonstrators are chanting ‘Theft, theft from every home‘ and ‘Where are we from, where are we from? We’re the children of the industrious/labouring population’.

Better wages and working hours
The demonstration in Rabat on 16 May was not the first of its kind. Moroccan agricultural workers have been demonstrating regularly over the past three years at both local and national level – targeting companies and also the government. Some of them had travelled over 600 kilometers to attend the demonstration that was organised by the Moroccan agricultural labour union Fédération Nationale du Secteur Agricole (FNSA). Although the Moroccan workers have a long list of conditions that should be improved, this demonstration was focused on improving wages and securing reasonable working hours. Currently, a Moroccan tomato picker still earns as little as 63.39 dirham a day (5.8 euro), which is 30% lower than the Moroccan minimum industrial wage and is not even close to a living wage that would cover all basic needs.

In Rabat the doors stayed closed at the Ministry of Employment. The demonstration remained peaceful and the demonstrators continued singing songs and waving banners. A few journalists were present at the demonstration, but there was little media coverage.

The power of retailers
There is hope: at the Forum many speakers and attendees agreed that nowadays it is retailers that exert much of the influence; they are the decision makers as to what they put on their shelves. Furthermore, many consumers expect them to ensure that human rights are protected throughout their supply chains. That is why we at Fairfood will continue to urge retailers, their suppliers and related companies throughout the supply chain to uphold the rights and dignity of everyone working within food supply chains. Furthermore, Fairfood calls for social and labour issues to be on top of the agenda at next year’s Tomato Forum.

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