Better Strawberries Group
Enhancing women’s social security and economic empowerment
At the break of dawn, thousands of women across the Larache province in northern Morocco pack into vans and travel long distances along rough roads to strawberry fields. There, they pick strawberries for eight hours or more, often for less than minimum wage and without the social security protections offered at the national level. They may never interact with farm owners and instead deal only with labor intermediaries (waqqaf) regarding recruitment, negotiation of wages, transportation, supervision and payment. They may face sexual harassment and verbal abuse from their supervisors who are mostly men. And some do not have protective gear to safeguard their health from the heavy use of pesticides in the berry industry nor regular access to hygienic toilets and clean water throughout their work days.
Morocco is one of the largest exporters of strawberries in the world; and the berry business is a key player in the Moroccan government’s national development plans. Field workers in this burgeoning industry are overwhelmingly women; an estimated 20,000 women are brought into strawberry jobs each year. While this growth has brought significant working opportunities for women in Morocco, it has also created mounting pressure on growers to rapidly hire for these labor-intensive positions without sufficient attention to, or concern for, putting decent working conditions in place.
“Morocco’s female strawberry pickers, in many cases, could possibly be regarded as a real and classic example of women’s low-paid labour facilitating greater profits for others ... [W]hile the sector has been growing significantly and contributing to positive economic results, unfortunately working conditions within the supply chain have evolved in a ‘predominantly informal and precarious environment.’”
Sian Jones, Oxfam
In 2011, after Oxfam began to highlight the increasingly precarious situation of women workers in the Moroccan strawberry industry, the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and Oxfam brought together most of the United Kingdom’s major supermarkets (including Marks & Spencer’s, Tesco and Sainbury’s) and berry importers to develop a plan of action regarding the issue. Termed the Better Strawberries Group, the initiative has thus far focused on the United Kingdom as one of the largest importers of fresh Moroccan strawberries. It has increasingly engaged with retailers and brands in France, Spain and Sweden as well.
“Most of the major retailers in the UK are ETI members and already working with key suppliers, so it made sense to build on these established relationships to try and address the issues faced by these women workers in Morocco. It’s important to look at all of the actors involved in these global supply chains, facilitating collaboration and momentum at the international level while engaging the government as well as producers, civil society and workers directly in Morocco.”
Sloane Hamilton, Oxfam
Shortly after the formation of the Better Strawberries Group, a stakeholder meeting was held in Morocco in 2012 where the British importers and supermarkets involved began the process of engaging Moroccan berry growers, their key associations, and civil society groups to further outline a collective 2012-2015 action plan.
“You buyers put pressure on quality with the products. You can also put pressure on the quality of the conditions for workers. Strawberry farm owners listen to you.”
Woman worker in the Moroccan strawberry industry
A unique analytical tool called SenseMaker was used in 2016 to capture the stories and insights of women workers in a way that empowered them, rather than demeaning or re-vicitimizing them. The open-ended “micro-narratives” shared by the workers through this methodology and the nuanced quantitative data captured alongside it have informed and supported the program.
Key aspects of the initiative
The Better Strawberries Group and its affiliated programs have a distinct focus on improving the working conditions of strawberry pickers in Morocco who are women and the provision of social security services at the local level. Its activities and results to date are centered on the following three components:
- Campaign: In partnership with the National Social Security Fund (CNSS) in Morocco and local civil society coalitions, the initiative set up “caravan” tents near work sites, transport spots and villages to facilitate the formalization of strawberry pickers’ work. This involved assisting the women in obtaining national identification cards that allow them to sign formal work contracts, register for social security entitlements, and access free health care services. Producers were also increasingly registered with CNSS as part of the program to aid the Moroccan government in the enforcement of employer contributions to social security programs, as well as minimum wage and minimum age laws. Women with two children may receive up to 40% more income due to government contributions as part of the CNSS program.
According to Oxfam:
- Approximately 16,100 women workers were reached as of 2014.
- More than 1,400 women received national identification cards.
- Over the course of the project, 14,027 individuals, including 9,205 women, received CNSS cards or verified existing cards.
- The number of people registered with CNSS in the Larache province increased by 40% in 2012 and 70% in 2013.
- The registration of workers with CNSS sits around 65% for the Larache province.
- The Moroccan government has provided support staff for the registration caravans.
- Employers have reported increased productivity and more stable workforces.
- Observatory: Each campaign caravan also houses an “observatory” where local civil society organizations raise awareness of labor rights in Morocco, detect and collect labor rights violation cases, provide guidance and resources to the workers, and record instances for further processing. In 2016, the observatory collected 362 rights violation cases.
According to Oxfam:
- Training on the Moroccan labor code and appropriate worker relations took place with 17 producers.
- Agricultural transporters formed their own association; and sensitization training on safe and humane practices was carried out with government representatives.
- Association of women workers: With support from the Better Strawberries Group, women workers came together to form their own workers association, called “Al Karama,” which means “dignity” in Arabic. The group has been an active part of the various components of the program, liaising with the campaign caravans, carrying out labor rights training and awareness raising, collectively demanding safer transport and decent working conditions, and providing referrals to workers when they report specific issues. A second association, named “Al Amal,” was created in 2013 to ensure women workers’ representation among local authorities and local growers, helping to reduce women’s vulnerability by providing a direct link between workers.
“[The women workers] have acquired a legitimacy that now allows them to organize activities independently, thereby further strengthening the social fabric among those involved.”
2014 Oxfam report
The Better Strawberries Group has met regularly in London to discuss progress and challenges. Annual meetings take place in Morocco among the various stakeholders involved. Growers involved in the program have also joined a “Producers Platform” hosted by Oxfam to meet and discuss challenges and successes. They are in the process of developing a Code of Conduct that is drawn from the ETI’s base code.