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The porters, the drama of the forgotten workers

Morocco unilaterally put the padlock on October 8, 2019, to the, cynically called, atypical trade. Little was said before, and now even less, about the porters, mules from Ceuta and Melilla, who have spent years risking their lives for less than 10 euros, carrying up to 90 kilos of merchandise on their backs. These women dedicate themselves to making as many trips as possible between the borders in a “new formula of slavery”, which has been common in Ceuta and Melilla for almost half a century.  Many of them are crushed to death in the great avalanches that form in the narrow border crossings and suffer different types of violence, but all seem to look the other way, since neither Spain, nor Morocco, nor Europe considers them workers.

Source: Photo by Antonio Sempere, included in the APHDA report.

The migrantologist and professor at the Rey Juan Carlos Faculty, Cristina Fuentes, -National Prize for the fight against Gender Violence in 2018- has been investigating this drama for years and, through her collaboration with the Pro Association Andalusian Human Rights (APHDA), denouncing the violation of human rights suffered by the porters.

In the report that this association published in 2016 – they already have a new reportmade public this year – it is stated that more than 7,000 women “are subjected to harassment, abuse, degrading treatment and even the youngest to harassment on a daily basis sexual”. Women porters carry between 60 and 90 kilos of weight on their backs for hours and “they are insulted, harassed and belittled, forced to stand in lines and beaten if they do not, all for less than 10 euros on average a day”. They wait without access to drinking water or public  toilets and without shade for hours in the sun on Tarajal beach. In a study by the University of Granada entitled Study on theEconomic and Fiscal Regime of Ceuta It is stated that “about half of the exports leave Ceuta behind the backs of the carriers, an alleged activity that is estimated at more than 400 million euros”, and furthermore, it is highlighted that “these benefits are based on the violation of the human rights of these women, who need a job to feed their families ”.

Cristina Fuentes Lara was distinguished by the central government, which granted her national recognition in 2018 for the fight against gender violence

-Cristina, we are used to hearing about typical commerce,  problems due to the situation on the border or the chaos in Tarajal … but we know little about the porters, who are these women?

-The porters are Moroccan women who daily cross the border between Spain (through Ceuta or Melilla) to load bales of merchandise. The porters reside in the towns bordering the border and are between 40 and 55 years old. Their marital status is not homogeneous, there are married, widowed and divorced porters. The common point is that regardless of their marital status, they are financially responsible for their home; Either because her husband is long-term unemployed or because he is incapacitated for work. In addition, the porters have between 3 and 5 children of which they are the economic engine of their livelihood.

-How is your day to day?

-Well, the morning of the porters begins around 3 in the morning. They get up, prepare breakfast for when their family gets up, and take a shared taxi to the border. They make a line at the border crossing until they can enter the Spanish side. At that time, they go to the industrial warehouses (in the case of Ceuta) and to trucks (in the case of Melilla), there they collect the bundles with the merchandise and load them to the other side of the border where the final customer of the merchandise awaits its bundle. In exchange for their work activity they receive a financial commission between 10 to 25 euros; and they are returning to their homes.

The risks of their work are diverse, such as that the police confiscate their merchandise, that they cannot leave with the bundle and have to spend the night in the Autonomous Cities, the attacks they receive from the police or the avalanches that occur.

-They have even lost their lives …

-Yes, during the performance of their work activities, at least 10 female porters have died, almost all in Ceuta and almost all due to avalanches that have occurred to be able to take a bundle or to be able to leave with the merchandise.

-In the conversations you had with these women, what do they think?

-They think that it is their job, that they have no other work alternative to support their family. Of course, they always think that it is something temporary, that it is a job that they are going to carry out until their financial troubles are solved. In Morocco, the work of porters enjoys low social prestige, so much so that they sometimes hide what they work from their families and acquaintances, posing as domestic workers in Ceuta or Melilla.

-Why does it interest some and others that the porters continue to be great forgotten?

-Well … frankly because they are the most vulnerable link in the atypical trade. They work and are invisible. Two factors also affect, on the one hand, that their work does not have social prestige in Morocco, and on the other hand, that when Morocco considers it an illegal activity and that they carry out smuggling, it deprives them of any agency capacity.

-What risks are these women exposed to if carrying is illegal?

-For the Moroccan perspective, the activity of the porters is considered illegal while for Spain it is illegal. The ban on porting will be due to a change in Moroccan political management rather than a change in border management by Morocco.

Since October 2019, the border has been closed to the transfer of goods and they are surviving based on neighborhood cooperation and the care network.

-Drew, in collaboration with the Association for Human Rights of Andalusia, a report on this issue, what are the keys that this document throws up?

– Yes, they are all included in the decalogue of measures of the 2016 report. In general terms, we proposed limiting the maximum weight of the package to 20 kg, the immediate closure of the Biutz pass, for not meeting the minimum standards of safety and respect for the dignity of people, and the opening of the Tarajal pass II, with rest areas and services for the porters such as public restrooms, drinking fountains and shadows. And, of course, the consideration of female porters as workers, the improvement of the infrastructure of the Tarajal border, which is obsolete, the delimitation of powers between the security forces on both sides of the border, action protocols on the exit of merchandise and the opening of a commercial customs office between Ceuta and Morocco that allows a legal and dignified commercial activity.

-This same report highlights that in 2014, this trade reported 1,400 million euros annually, a third of the economy of the two Spanish autonomous cities … what benefits, whatever the type, have reverted to improvements for these workers?

-None. It has not reversed anything in the situation of the porters, in fact, neither Spain, nor Morocco nor Europe considers them as workers.

-Does porting respond to a patriarchal structure?

-Yes, in fact, analyzing the circuit of the porters in detail, it is observed that merchandise clients, merchants and police are all men, only those who carry out the most socially denigrated work are the porters, who are mostly women.

-Is there awareness among Moroccan society about what happens on the border?

-Absolutely, all the actors in the border situation are aware of the violation of human rights suffered by the porters.

-And from Europe, what vision is there?

-Well, that of indifference. The APDHA brought the situation of the porters to the European Parliament and the institutional response was silence. They are knowledgeable about the situation, but do not act.

– In your opinion, what future holds for the porters?

-Well, for many the future will be to work as a domestic worker, in the care sector or in retail in the medinas of their municipalities.



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