Factory tragedy shows need for international safety agreement and improved working conditions in Morocco

Last week, at least 28 garment workers died following heavy flooding in a sweatshop in Tangier, Morocco. Our thoughts are with these workers and their families. This tragedy shows the urgent need for better working conditions in the Moroccan garment industry, as well as an international binding agreement on factory safety that holds brands, retailers and factory owners accountable for creating safe and healthy workplace conditions.

First reports about the incident indicate that at least 19 women and 9 men between the ages of 20 and 40 died after a short circuit caused by the heavy rains in the region, which flooded many places and houses at street level. A judicial investigation has been opened to determine the circumstances of the tragedy and clarify responsibilities.

This tragedy once again highlights the dismal working conditions in a global industry employing a majority women workforce, where precarious labour relations, lack of transparency and impunity continue to be endemic.

“They say these are illegal factories, but in reality everyone knows that they exist and they are well-known companies. We call them clandestine factories because they do not respect the most minimal security conditions or labour rights", Aboubakr Elkhamilchi, founding member of the Moroccan grassroots organisation Attawassoul, explained to the newspaper Ara.

Elkhamilchi, who cooperates closely with Clean Clothes Campaign members in Spain, commented: “There is a family that has lost four daughters (…) We knew that the security conditions were very bad in many sweatshops, but we did not imagine the serious insecurity that these workers were living through. We will continue investigating the case, together with [CCC network organisations] Setem and [Campaña] Ropa Limpia, to be able to get strong evidence.”

The need for a binding international agreement on safety

The tragedy shows the need for concerted efforts in the industry to improve factory safety and healthy workplace conditions. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013, killing over 1,100 workers, led to a binding and enforceable system that has improved factory safety for over 2 million workers in the country. Currently, unions and labour rights organisations are calling for this programme to turn into an international binding agreement, that could be used to implement and enforce the same levels of health and safety in garment supply chains in other countries around the world.

The need for brands and retailers to commit to such a binding agreement with global union federations is further underlined by this tragedy and its causes. Extreme weather events, including heavy rainfall that most likely caused this incident, are already costing lives and destroying livelihoods, and will occur more often in the wake of climate change and rising temperatures. Brands and retailers have the responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. While that was always a challenge, the combined threats of climate change and a global pandemic, make a concerted approach to health and safety even more pressing. Brands and retailers can meet this obligation by committing to the proposed binding international agreement on safety that will provide a framework for creating safe and healthy working conditions for the workers in their supply chains.

Morocco’s working conditions

Furthermore, the incident highlights the poor working conditions in a less known garment production hub directly on the European border. According to the Moroccan employers' association (AMITH), of the 1,000 million garments that are manufactured in the country each year, 600 million are produced in factories subcontracted by foreign firms. The main destinations for Moroccan clothing exports are Spain, France, the UK, Ireland and Portugal.

A recent study published by CCC member Setem Catalunya and Attawassoul showed that 47% of the people surveyed worked more than 55 hours a week for monthly salaries of around 250 euros, 70% did not have a labour contract, and up to 88% of those surveyed claimed they did not enjoy right to unionise. These numbers are even more shocking, considering they refer to workers in official factories, under scrutiny of auditors hired by major garment companies. The situation is worse in informal factories and sweatshops, which according to the Moroccan Employers' Confederation (CGEM), make up more than half of the production of Moroccan "textile and leather".

This tragedy must be a wake-up call for brands and retailers sourcing from Morocco to take responsibility for the working conditions of the workers making their clothes, by: improving working conditions in the Moroccan supplier factories, committing to an international binding agreement on health and safety, and ensuring justice for the workers and their families in the event that a brand is identified as sourcing from this particular factory.

published 2021-02-16