'Cargo women' living under heavy burden of exploitation
One woman has clothes and socks tied to her. photographs: fernando molina
Two women walk towards the border with heavy loads on their backs. photographs: fernando molina
One of the women walking towards the Melilla-Morocco border with a heavy pack on her back, while a group of men push tires. photographs: fernando molina
Policemen guard the border while a woman queues to cross. photographs: fernando molina
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY:The female porters lugging loads between a Spanish enclave and Morocco know little of International Women’s Day
If Safia Azizi hadn’t been queuing at 7.20am by the narrow blue turnstiles on the border between the Spanish town of Melilla and Morocco, it might not have happened. But she was.
Usually, this is the time when the Moroccan police open the barrier to the hundreds of women, most of them elderly, who cross the border daily to the Spanish north African enclave sandwiched between Morocco and the Mediterranean, to load their cargo.
“It looks as if they were going into the slaughterhouse,” said Safia’s brother the next day, after taking a look at the narrow blue turnstiles.
If she had not been there that morning maybe today she would be crossing the border again, running to the storehouses and loading up to 80kg of goods on her back. Then she would race back to the border and, once in Morocco, deliver her cargo to the trader who had hired her, before queuing again to cross through the blue turnstiles.
But Safia will not do it any more because she was there that morning at 7.20am. She was ready for a hard day’s work, with her djellaba (Islamic dress) the only protection against the sharp cold of dawn and her hijab (headscarf) perfectly arranged. “I never saw a single hair of her head,” recalls her friend Dunia.
If Safia had not been pushed to the ground by the avalanche of people, she would have earned €15 that day, after three trips back and forth across the border. That means up to €60 a week, compared to the average weekly wage of €50 in Morocco. She knew well that the more trips she could do, the more money she would earn. But she could not stop herself falling to the ground.
The rush and chaos on the Moroccan side of the border led to this uncontrollable force: the onrush of desperate women who ran her over.
Safia (41) was a graduate of Arabic literature from the University of Fez, her hometown, something unusual among the women working as porters. Like other unemployed graduates, she had left her hometown in search of a job, any job.
Someone told her the border was an easy way to make money. So she registered as a resident in Nador, the last town in Morocco before the border, as only locals can cross to the Spanish side without a passport.
Working as a porter demanded a huge physical effort – but she could earn money, enough to make a living out of it.
Who knows: if Safia had not been crushed to death she might have later found a job as a graduate.
That November morning a policeman on the Spanish side of the border saw the crush of people and tried to help the injured.
By the time he got there, under an iron-grey sky, he found a jumble of women and large packages on the ground, scattered by the force of the crowd. He had to shoot into the air to get through.
It was all in vain. The harm was done. A postmortem confirmed that Safia died due to “a pulmonary haemorrhage caused by a violent chest compression”.
Safia was an exception among the porters. Most are illiterate, many are divorced, others have been abandoned by their husbands, some others are single mothers – in Moroccan culture, a status more frowned upon than abandonment.
The loads the women carry are the property of Moroccan traders. If the goods were to pass officially through customs, in trucks or containers, the traders would have to pay a tariff.
But if they use porters they can evade the tariffs, as it is legal to carry packages as long as they are personal baggage. So the “cargo women” carry the goods to avoid tariff control. This smuggling benefits the Moroccan traders, but also those on the other side.