Thursday, August 11, 2016

Morocco's New Law to Protect Domestic Workers' Rights

On July the 26th, 2016, Morocco’s new law regulating conditions for domestic workers was adopted by the House of Representatives and will go into effect one year after publication in the official gazette
Photo Credit : FADEL SENNA / AFP

In 2005 and 2012 Human Rights Watch investigated conditions in Morocco for child domestic workers – those under 18 –  finding that girls as young as eight had endured physical abuse and worked long hours for little pay.

Child domestic workers – known locally as “kheddamat” – told Human Rights Watch that their employers frequently beat and verbally abused them, wouldn’t let them go to school, and sometimes refused them adequate food. Some child domestic workers worked for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for as little as US$11 per month. All that is thankfully to change.

Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications and advocacy director at Human Rights Watch says, “This new law is groundbreaking for domestic workers in Morocco, so many of whom have been exploited and abused, but wage and working hour provisions still fall short, especially the new minimum wage for domestic workers, which is much lower than the legal minimum wage for other workers.”
The new law requires written contracts and sets 18 as the minimum age for domestic workers, with a phase-in period of five years during which girls between 16 and 18 are allowed to work. It limits working hours for 16 and 17-year-olds to 40 hours a week, and for adults to 48 hours a week, though Morocco’s labor law for other sectors sets the limit at 44 hours. It guarantees 24 continuous hours of weekly rest, and a minimum wage of 1,542 dirhams (US$158) per month, 60 percent of the minimum wage for jobs covered under the country’s labor law. The law also provides for financial penalties for employers who violate the law.
“Domestic workers, who are most often poorly educated women and girls from the countryside, work in urban environments where they are isolated,” said Benchemsi. “By providing domestic workers with legal, enforceable protection, Morocco is delivering the message that even the most vulnerable workers deserve humane conditions.”

Human Rights Watch first investigated the use of child domestic labor in Morocco in 2005. A follow-up investigation in 2012 found that the number of children working in domestic work had dropped, but that many children were still working below the minimum age, then set at 15, under terrible conditions.

In a recent article published in Le Monde  and on the Human Rights Watch site, Ahmed Benchemsi looked at the impact of the new law. It is reprinted with permission.

L’kheddama” (“The maid.”) That is how many Moroccan families refer to the domestic worker in their employ, whom they call by her first name. As for her last name, maybe the housewife remembers it, from the day she hired her and made a photocopy of her ID (you never know, in case she steals something ...) Or maybe she doesn’t. Why would she remember the maid’s surname, after all? Nobody ever uses it.

The abuse against domestic workers in Morocco starts with profound discrimination: almost invisible to society. Until recently, they also didn’t exist in the eyes of the law. Excluded from the Moroccan Labor Code, these women, who are most often from the countryside and have little or no education, had no legal rights in terms of minimum wages, working hours, or even days off. Their employers could overwork or underpay them, and suffer no legal consequences.

But things will change now. On July 26, the Moroccan parliament passed a law that regulates domestic work in Morocco. The new law, which will enter into force one year after its publication, requires proper labor contracts for domestic workers, limits their daily working hours, guarantees days off and paid vacations, and sets a minimum wage. The law also provides financial penalties for employers who violate these provisions, and even prison sentences for repeat offenders.

As part of its research on child domestic workers – under age 18 — in Morocco in 2005 and 2012, Human Rights Watch gathered damning evidence. Some "petites bonnes” (“little maids”), as they are called in Morocco, stated that their employers frequently beat and insulted them, prevented them from going to school, and sometimes refused them adequate food. Some worked for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for no more than US$11 per month.

The new law sets 18 as the minimum age for domestic workers, with a phase-in period of five years during which 16 and 17-year old girls will be allowed to work. This last provision was strongly criticised by Insaf, a collective of Moroccan nongovernmental organisations that opposes child labor.

That is not the only debatable provision of the new law. Adult domestic workers must work 48 hours per week, while the Moroccan labor code provides for a maximum of 44 hours for other sectors. Another source of inequality is the minimum wage. The wage guaranteed for domestic workers is only 60 percent of the minimum guaranteed by the labor code. Some say that since many domestic workers live with their employers, the food and shelter they get is for a partial in-kind payment. But that is not enough to justify a 40 percent difference. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) allows for in-kind payments, but specifies that such payments should be limited, to allow for a salary that guarantees a decent standard of living for the workers and their families. It is also worth noting that living at their workplace is rarely a choice for domestic workers, as such an arrangement mainly serves the employers’ interests.

Despite the limitations of the new law, however, it will provide legal protection for the first time to some of the country’s most vulnerable workers. This is a real success, for which we should congratulate the government and also—perhaps especially—Moroccan nongovernmental organisations that campaigned for this ground-breaking reform for many years.

Now that the law exists, the next challenge will be making sure it is carried out. For that purpose, the next government (elections are scheduled this fall) will have to establish enforcement mechanisms, in particular labor inspectors who will visit homes where domestic workers are employed. The government will also have to open a broad public awareness campaign, preferably on national television and in Moroccan Arabic – the language most likely to be understood by everyone concerned–so that employees will know their rights and employers they duties.

Enforcing this law will create a social shock wave in Morocco. After decades of quasi-forced servitude, hundreds of thousands of "kheddamat" will finally raise their heads and be recognised for what they are: citizens with rights.

The ILO Convention

In 2011, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (Convention 189), establishing global standards for domestic workers. The convention specifies that working hours for domestic workers should be equivalent to those for other types of work, and that domestic workers should be covered by minimum wage requirements.

Morocco voted to adopt the Domestic Workers Convention in 2011, but has not yet ratified it. To date, 22 countries have ratified the convention, including countries from every region of the world except for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Now that Morocco has established legal protections for domestic workers, it should ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention,” said Benchemsi. “By ratifying the convention, it can be a leader for other countries in the region in protecting domestic workers.”

Ahmed Benchemsi is the Advocacy and Communications Director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. Ahmed is also a career journalist. The founder, publisher and editor of Morocco’s best-selling weeklies TelQuel and Nishan, and the webmagazine, he was awarded twice Best investigative Journalist in the Arab World by the European Union. Ahmed was published in Time magazine, Newsweek, The new Republic, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Le Monde, and other publications. 

A co-author of “Taking to the streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism” (2014, Johns Hopkins University press), he also produced articles for academic institutions and think tanks including the national Endowment for Democracy, the Middle East Institute, and the Cato Institute. He is also regularly interviewed or quoted in media outlets such as CNN, PBS, NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and more. Ahmed has an MPhil in Political Science from Sciences Po (Paris), an MA in Development Economics from the Sorbonne, and was a fellow at Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy.


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