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Essential Matter: Policy Dialogue on Women's Industrial Employment in Morocco

1 Dec 1996

  • Author(s): Rabéa Naciri


In Morocco, as in many other parts of the world, export industries, and the textile industry in particular, employ a high proportion of female labour. Yet there has been little effort to link the question of export competitiveness to that of conditions of female employment. The two topics have generally been analysed separately, in distinct spheres that do not carry the same weight in terms of influence on decision-making. While economists evaluate competitiveness with reference to traditional economic theory, women's associations denounce the conditions of exploitation inflicted on female workers. This situation tends to rule out a useful interchange, leading to separate policy discussions, not dialogue.

To improve the situation, the UNRISD/UNDP programme on Technical Co-operation and Women's Lives has been supporting a project on the Industrial employment of women in Morocco, co-ordinated by the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Aziz Bellal (CERAB), of Rabat. The project began with an analysis of Women's Employment and Moroccan Competitive Advantage, and research eventually came to focus on the more specific area of Industrial Models and Wage Discrimination in the Textiles and Clothing Sector. The research served as the basis for a policy dialogue, guided by the view that the only way to influence political priorities is to bring gender issues into the decision-making process at the highest level, not simply to react after key policy decisions have already been made.

The Setting for Dialogue

Research on gender issues in Morocco has not yet acquired the status of "serious" inquiry, and this has made the task of initiating dialogue between economists and gender researchers all the more challenging. At the first UNRISD/ CERAB workshop, held in Rabat in July 1995, participants tended to talk past each other. Representatives of women's associations questioned the approach and language of several of the economists present, accusing them of manipulating statistics in order to mask the reality of wage discrimination against women in industry. The economists, for their part, rejected the feminists' language as scientifically unfounded because it was not based on quantitative data. Yet by the time a second workshop was held in October 1996, there had been a qualitative advance in communication.

In fact, a number of elements in the political and economic climate increased the concern of policy makers and industrial entrepreneurs for the future of the Moroccan textile industry and of its women workers. (The textile sector accounts for over 40 per cent of industrial employment in Morocco, and three out of four workers in the sector are women.) Within the context of globalization, new exporting countries are gaining a competitive advantage by paying lower wages than those of Morocco. At the same time, an association agreement with the European Unions provides potential opportunities, with the lifting of customs barriers over the next ten years. This has encouraged the search for new production strategies.

The Research Programme

In selecting the research theme, the CERAB team set itself the challenge of dismantling barriers and establishing connections between the social and the economic life of women workers, within and outside firms, while at the same time heeding the imperatives of productivity and competitiveness specific to the textile industry. In keeping with the goals of the UNRISD/UNDP programme, an effort was also made to set up the structures and mechanisms required to maintain a continuous policy dialogue on this theme, involving economic and political decision makers, researchers, representatives of women's movements and civil society either directly (through the workshops already mentioned) or indirectly (through very dense media coverage).

The first stage of research concentrated on economic analysis of international competitiveness and wage discrimination in the textile industry. It showed that the mobilization of an almost exclusively female labour force has corresponded to a phase in the development of export sectors, which have counted upon gaining market share through a low-wage policy. Women constitute the majority of the labour force in this export industry not because of considerations pertaining to women's "natural" physical attributes (women allegedly adjust better to work in the textile industry because they are more careful and have slimmer fingers), but because firms — and the economy in general — have been able to increase profits by employing young, unskilled female labour. (Over half of the output of the textile sector is exported, amounting to 25 per cent of the country's total exports.) This was confirmed by the finding that a higher value is set on women's work experience than on certificates and qualifications.

The second stage of research was qualitative, involving interviews with 16 heads of enterprises, as well as surveys and case studies among women wage-earners. The purpose was to gain an understanding of the mechanisms enabling the textile sector to derive competitive advantage from the social disadvantage of women coming from severely underprivileged urban backgrounds. Survey results, which were confirmed by discussions held at the two workshops, showed that enterprises generally reproduce and profit from the hierarchical ordering of social roles by gender. In other words, while the origin of discrimination is to be found in society, it is perpetuated by firms, which take advantage of socially ascribed "feminine" attributes to optimize productivity and competitiveness. Docility and obedience are precisely the qualities that heads of enterprises most appreciate in their female labour force, while men are considered more resistant to discipline.

Research highlighted the paradoxical situation of women workers in the textile sector, who are driven by economic necessity into the labour market, but then handicapped by the low value which society places on their work. Low pay and job insecurity reinforce this undervaluation. Enterprise heads benefit from such a situation while placing responsibility for absenteeism, instability in employment and non-compliance with rules on their female employees, whom they accuse of being "stone deaf" to the rationale of the firm.

Progress in Dialogue

After taking an accusatory tone at the first workshop, enterprise heads backtracked at the second workshop, where they admitted that the rationale of the enterprise could not be understood or assimilated by women wage-earners unless something was done about training and labour relations generally. Where the "rules of engagement" in an enterprise are neither clear nor fair, women workers tend to develop resistance strategies, conditioned by patriarchal gender relations, to disrupt the production process. In other words, while the optimization of productivity and quality depends upon the degree of discipline and loyalty to the enterprise, it also calls for greater consistency in human resource management among the entrepreneurs themselves — a point the interested parties came to acknowledge.

The work done by UNRISD, UNDP and CERAB has contributed to improving entrepreneurs' awareness of the fact that the status of women is a key component in efforts to restructure and rationalize the textile sector. This was confirmed by the head of the Moroccan Association of Textile and Clothing Manufacturers (AMITH) and the Vice-President of the General Confederation of Moroccan Entrepreneurs (CGEM), who concluded at the last workshop that the textile industry's competitiveness depends closely on the ability of its enterprises to become a setting for the emancipation of women wage-earners.

Rabéa Naciri is the co-ordinator of the UNRISD/UNDP programme in Morocco. Members of the research team are Rahma Bourqia, Saad Belghazi and Abderrahim Hajji.