THE BLOG

Strawberry Dreams

21/04/2017 12:22
Pixland via Getty Images

The next time you bite into a ripe strawberry or spread strawberry jam on your toast, spare a thought for the women who are likely to have picked them in the strawberry fields of Morocco.

Women like Amina* , who like many of the other women I talk to, left school before she wanted to in order to work. She told me: 'I don't want other children to go through the same thing that I did. School can help children to achieve something in their lives.'

In this area of Morocco, it is mainly the women who work in the strawberry fields, with the usual argument that they have more agile fingers and don't bruise the delicate fruit, but also that they are more biddable.

'It used to be true that we would not speak out. We would never have spoken to someone like you before. Now if we are insulted we will defend ourselves. Even our bosses know about women's rights,' says Sara.

Both women are part of a women's association supported by Oxfam and local partners who have worked with them on knowing their rights, as well as ensuring that they have identity cards and social security cards. This means, among other things, that employees have to be registered, employers cannot employ anyone under 15 and that they have to pay the women social security.

At the same time, Oxfam and the Ethical Trading Initiative have worked with the strawberry producers, exporters and importers and with the companies that buy and sell the strawberries in countries like the UK and France, to ensure that they are aware of the situation and can work for better conditions for those who pick the fruit. And some of them have taken the task seriously enough to engage in a concrete dialogue with their berry producers.

Women like Amina and Sara know their rights and can speak out - but this does not mean that they are always upheld. Both of them have been fired for questioning their bosses - and this is a big deal when there is no other employment in the area and your income may be the only one in the family.

The main topic of discussion today is transport - the women tell me that they may travel 2 hours each way to get to the fields that are ripe, and that they are crammed into Mercedes vans that are meant for nine people, but with the seats taken out can be stuffed with up to 60.

'It is hard to breathe, you are squashed and standing. It means you are tired when you get to work.'
'Sometimes we are taken in lorries that are not fit for animals.'

Quite apart from the transport problem, and the low wages, there are the picking conditions.

The women carry large plastic buckets on their backs, and have to bend double to reach the fruit. They say they are only allowed one toilet break a day, and sometimes not a lunch break. Plus there is the problem of sexual harassment which means that they are often afraid, but which they cannot speak of for fear of shaming their families.

There are laws in place that should protect the women, but these are often not upheld in practice.

'We want to make sure that the next generation do not suffer like we do. My uncle once I asked me to write my name and I couldn't. I was ashamed. So we are sending our girls and boys to school.'

'What do I want?' says Sara. 'Women still have to do everything, inside the home and outside. I want fathers to do more, to be more responsible. I want women's rights to be respected.'

If these women are anything to go by, they will get their way. They have made huge progress already. They are determined, outspoken, and not about to give up. And their success will also mean that you will be able to eat your strawberries with a clean conscience.

* Names have been changed to protect the women.

For more information see here.

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