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Casablanca calling: Morocco’s call centres unionise

Breakthrough elections in fast-growing sector weaken government control of worker councils, boost hopes of improved conditions
Union workers at a press conference (Tansy Hoskins)

The Casanearshore complex on the outskirts of Casablanca looks like a futuristic university campus. Concrete and glass buildings tower over manicured lawns and spotless sun-baked streets. 

Security guards are stationed at every entry point, checking the swipe cards needed to gain access. The complex holds a creche, a gym, shops, restaurants, a hair salon and a spa: all reducing the need to ever leave.

This purpose-built facility is at the heart of Casablanca’s booming “contact centre”, or call-centre, industry, which helps to handle customer relations for global companies such as Dell and Hewlett Packard. With 10,000 people employed at this site alone, Morocco has acquired the nickname “Europe’s call centre capital”.

“From outside, everything is cool, but inside there are so many problems,” said Fatima Aggahra, who for six years has worked at French company Acticall, an “integrated services group specialising in customer relationship management”, according to its website.

Aggahra is typical of a new workforce that is young, well-educated, and more than 50 percent women. She is also part of a new wave of contact centre employees who are taking on the Moroccan government and multinational corporations from France, Belgium, the USA and Spain to unionise their workplaces.

For the first 10 days of this month, Casanearshore was locked in an electoral battle over who should represent workers in the sector’s worker councils.

In a hangover from the days when Morocco was colonised by the French, labour laws mean power for trade unions rests on how many candidates they can get elected onto local and national worker councils.

Elections are held across numerous industries every six years, and employers are free to put forward their own candidates. Since contact centres are a relatively new industry, there had not previously been union candidates in this industry, only a scattering of independent candidates. As a result, trade unions have had no recognition or bargaining rights in a sector of at least 70,000 people.

This has now changed as a result of Morocco’s largest trade union, the Union Marocaine du Travail (UMT), running a successful campaign to get its candidates elected in 89 seats across the national sector. This means there are now more than 18,400 workers, or 26 percent of workers in the sector, covered by collective bargaining and 11 companies have been unionised.

Beneath the shiny exterior

A look beneath the shiny exterior of the contact centres reveals why the union campaign was a success. Inside, workers sit in booths that resemble rabbit hutches, each one as narrow as possible so that the maximum number can be squeezed onto each floor. Many of the jobs start at the minimum wage, hours are long, and the jobs are highly precarious with employees subjected to firings without recourse.

As well as stress, contact workers describe numerous physical ailments, hearing issues from constantly wearing headsets, vocal-chord issues, eyesight problems from overusing laptops, and breathing issues caused by poor air quality.

Union activists like Aggahra and her friends Yasmine Siguel and Mounia Nemry are known as “militants”. Amongst issues such as constant stress and the precarious nature of the work that motivated them to stand as candidates, one in particular means a lot to them as women: the company buses that run from Casanearshore back into the city drop many workers more than a kilometre from their homes.

Fatima, Yasmin and Mounir (MEE/Tansy Hoskins)
For young women, being alone on the poorly lit streets of Casablanca at night means trouble: “There are big risks at night, especially for girls and women,” Aggahra said. “There are thieves, aggressive people, accidents - it is not at all safe.”

She described how many young women from the contact centres have been robbed while walking from the bus drop-off to their homes. The provision of safe transport is an issue these newly elected union representatives are determined to take on.

Morocco’s offshore appeal

European multinational companies have flocked to Morocco to set up contact centres, lured by tax breaks and a skilled but low-paid workforce. The minimum wage (SMIG) in Morocco is 2,500 dirams ($258) a month.

Ayoub Saoud, general secretary for the National Federation of Call Centre and Offshoring Employees, within the UMT, describes Morocco’s appeal to companies: “Morocco is so near Europe - just 14km away. We speak French and Spanish because of the occupations [by foreign forces], and we also speak English. The government has set up a big infrastructure for these industries and the Ministries of Industry and Education have accords with these companies to provide tax breaks and free training for workers.

“The most important reason for companies choosing Morocco is that it is a big base of young workers who are highly qualified and getting their first work experience, so can be easily exploited,” Saoud said. “They are people without union or political experience. They are fresh.”

Young workers are drawn to contact centres from within Morocco and beyond because of the region’s high levels of unemployment and the search for opportunity - numerous marriages have resulted from meetings at these large youthful workplaces.

A particularly precarious section of the workforce are workers from Senegal. Farba Ndong came to Casablanca from Senegal six years ago to complete his studies then stayed to work at French telecommunications company B2S where he now trains new contact centre recruits in telemarketing techniques.

There are thought to be 6,000 Senegalese workers in the sector, though Ndong believes that if you add in the informal sector, this figure would rise to 15,000. The problems faced by this significant workforce prompted Ndong to found the Association of Senegalese Offshoring in Morocco (ASSOM), which is working closely with the UMT.

“Senegalese pay taxes, but when they return to Senegal they do not qualify for any employment benefits,” Ndong said. “We are working and paying taxes every month, but there is no assurance that in 10 years they will pay our retirement. Also we cannot send money legally to Senegal. If we want to do so, we must find our own way. The Moroccan government does not allow foreigners to send money.”

Call centre at Casanearshore facility (MEE/Tansy Hoskins)
Ndong says every Senegalese worker in Morocco is sending money back to relatives in Senegal, and they have no choice but to use informal networks that leave people vulnerable to theft. ASSOM hopes to give Senegalese contact centre workers a voice in Casablanca and eventually to expand to other cities and industries.

A global approach

Also in Casablanca for the ballot is Mongi Abderrahim, a veteran Tunisian trade unionist who likes to tell edgy jokes about Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian dictator who twice put Abderrahim in prison for trade union work.

Abderrahim is now the coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa region of UNI Global Union, a Switzerland-based international trade union that has been supporting UMT’s young contact centre activists. 

Tunisia has about 30,000 contact centre workers of its own, and Abderrahim describes Casablanca as a test case for how workers will be treated in the workplaces of the future.

“Traditional industries are declining, but contact centres are full of young workers who are highly qualified and conscientious. The technological sector is a sector with a future.”

Along with UMT, Abderrahim has a strong message for European companies offshoring to North Africa: “If these companies want to be in the Arab region they should respect the rights of workers and our right to equality,” he said. “We will not be only a space where workers are paid less than other workers. We will insist on dignity.”

On a Casablancan rooftop under a full moon, Yasmin Siguel high-fives her friends with a big grin on her face. The 26-year-old has just been elected as a union representative at the Phonegroup contact centre. “I won!” she smiles. 

Fatima Aggahra arrives a short time later as “militants” from different companies phone and text each other their election results. “This is the result of four years of militancy,” Aggahra said.

“We faced so many abuses, like being fired or moved. But now people trust us and we’ve done it. This week, people have been encouraging us when we walk past, they wave and say ‘you are the winners’. They are motivated to vote for us because of all the work we’ve done. It is exciting that people trust us and now aren’t scared to be delegates themselves in the future.”

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