'Cargo women' living under heavy burden of exploitation

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY: The female porters lugging loads between a Spanish enclave and Morocco know little of International…

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.

Human avalanche

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”.

Frowned upon

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.

“It is not smuggling. Everything is done with transparency, taxes are paid and each one can sell in his warehouse to whomever he sees fit,” says Enrique Alcoba, president of the Traders’ Association of Melilla, which supports the unrestrained movement of merchandise.

“What Moroccans do with these products is none of our business. Many families make a living out of it, and we have products here that cannot be found in Morocco or are more expensive there.”

According to Alcoba, “70 per cent of the goods that are received in Melilla make their way to Morocco”.

Latest figures released by the local representative of the Spanish government in Melilla show that the total value of this trade, which some call atypical and others call smuggling, is up to €440 million. But according to the estimate of the Moroccan authorities, Melilla and Ceuta (the other Spanish enclave in Morocco) export €1.4 billion in goods a year.

Some 45,000 people in Morocco make a living directly out of this trade, while another 400,000 rely indirectly on it, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Casablanca. That is not counting the bribes paid to Moroccan border officials by the porters. They have to pay to ensure they are not pushed back in the queue by police officers.

Usually the amount paid is about €1 each way, which, according to Moroccan weekly Al Ayam, represents €90 million a year in bribes for the pockets of police and customs officers. This is why a position at the station by the border on the Moroccan side is so sought after. “If you pay, you can pass missiles through here,” says one porter jokingly.

Swarming with people

It is early in the morning, and the dawn yawns over the horizon.

The Spanish side of the border is already swarming with people, while the crowds gather across the fence. The cold chills the bones. In the large queue before the gates thousands of women with broken dreams wait patiently.

Suddenly, a biker stops and throws down the load of tyres he is carrying. Many rush over as if their lives depend on them. At the same time, a few white trucks reach the vast open space before the border crossing points. They have not fully stopped when men and women throw themselves on their rear doors and open them forcefully.

With elbow and foot they fight each other, climb to the truck and get a package. There are more people than packages. It looks like a free-for-all but, in fact, most of the packages have been previously assigned.

It is mostly men who carry the packages closer to the border. They do not even load the goods on their backs, as they are bundled in such a way that they can be pushed around and rolled.

However, most women have to walk all the way up to the distant storehouses, carry the load on their lower back and get back to the fence.

This would be impossible if it were not for Antonio, the city bus driver. He takes the women closer to the storehouses and brings them back again, so the process is not so exhausting.

Antonio knows them all by name and is much loved. His work is almost humanitarian labour, and he goes as far as helping the women to get on to the bus with their heavy bales.

“What you see here is inhuman, but it happens every day. These women carry 300 tonnes of goods daily on their backs.”

The women tie their packages to their backs with simple rags of fabric or ropes, often to their shoulders and neck.

They are like ghosts with cracked faces who come and go, loaded with shoes, drinks, blankets, crisps, nappies and almost anything else tied to their waist, chest and thighs. Everything has been wrapped several times in duct tape.

Too heavy

That is why they look swollen, with bulky djellabas, walking as bomb women ready to explode. Many cannot take the weight and stumble to the ground while queuing.

It is almost possible to see in their eyes the anxiety rising within them, how it rushes through their veins until their skin bursts open.

“If it wasn’t for us they would kill each other,” says one of the Spanish civil guards trying to keep order on the crowd.

There has not been a human avalanche, like the one that killed Safia, for months. Perhaps it is due to the system of roads leading to the border gates that the police have set up. The porters choose one way or another depending on the type of package they carry.

“The idea is that they keep on moving, because if they stop, the risk of an avalanche is higher,” says Capt Rafael Martinez, responsible for border security.

Maintaining order

The captain has selected 20 porters, all men, who wear a yellow cap. They help officers to maintain order and translate for their fellow countrymen and women. In return, they can carry their loads through the border without queuing.

“Each one of them has a yellow cap – and a number,” Martinez adds. “The first day I gave the volunteers a yellow cap, as a way of differentiating them from the rest. But some people are cunning.

“The next day there were 80 yellow caps, ready to jump their places in the queue. It was totally impossible to know who was who. So I had to give them a number as well.”

No matter how much the police try to organise the crossing, the daily sight of these cargo women stumbling with their backs bent at a 45-degree angle, with their mouths full of dry earth and close to collapse under the huge weight of the packages, remains a macabre show, more typical of the Middle Ages than of a southern European border in the 21st century.

The Human Rights Association of the southern Spanish province of Andalucía highlights the importance of putting systems in place to allow the transit of goods in a way that is not so harmful to the health of these women.

It says there is a need to “change the physical structure of the transit areas and to allow the use of mechanical aids to carry the goods”.

It also claims that the situation is “outrageous”.

“These women are abused and exploited by the traders and neglected by the policymakers of both countries,” it says.

It is noon when the crossing of goods stops at the border. As on the previous day, a cargo woman who did not have time to carry her last package over to Morocco has been trapped on the Spanish side.

She rests on a railing, exhausted, as the sweat turns her hijab translucent. Soon, with her back bent, she walks with difficulty towards the turnstiles, back to the place where Safia died. The stench of sewers and rubbish, cardboard and plastic left over from the day follows her.

With an aching back and her teeth grinding, she walks along the fence, along the deep wound that lacerates these lands.

She stops for a second and says in broken Spanish: “Early tomorrow . . . the same again.”

FERNANDO MOLINA is a freelance photojournalist whose work appears in grassroots publication Diagonal. diagonalperiodico.net