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Scamming the souq: The exploitation of Moroccan artisans

Scamming the souq: The exploitation of Moroccan artisans
5 min read
14 September, 2023
Tourism contributes to Morocco's economy, reaching over $5.6 billion in revenue in the first half of 2023. However, artisans who directly contribute towards that figure earn only a smidgen of that amount.

Local craft shops play a crucial role in giving Morocco’s Medinas their nomadic authentic charms. From tanned leather bags to complex rugs rich in colour, visitors adore the hand-crafted artisan goods.

Tourism equally contributes to the country's economy, reaching over $5.6 billion in revenue in the first half of 2023. However, artisans who directly contribute towards that figure earn only a smidgen of that amount.

In the remote mountain or desert villages of Morocco reside some of the country’s most talented artisans. They make their living by crafting weeks-long goods and selling them in the nearest weekly market to random shoppers at absurd prices.

Despite this earnest and innocent way of life, some individuals leverage these artisans – both willingly and unwillingly – for monetary benefits.

Generally, the exploiters rely on two methods to capitalise on artisans. The first occurs during the weekly market trips. Malicious opportunists disguise themselves as a random civilian and purchase hand-crafted goods from the artisans.

Only for them to take these products and flip them at tourist markets – such as Fes’ or Marrakech’s souqs – to be sold at marked-up prices. In the end, the artisan only makes about 4-5% of the final sell price.

Kenza reported that some of these resellers worked with popular crafts shops in the popular cities. “It’s always a gamble to sell them [crafted goods] in weekly markets,” said Kenza.

Moroccan artisans often receive only 4-5% of the final selling price [Getty Images]

The second way artisans are scammed out of their fair wages is through exploitative supply deals. Some craft goods shops will strike up unofficial agreements with artisans to make a set amount of products throughout a determined period of time.

While it may seem beneficial to the artisan in theory, the reality of these deals is often unfair. Not only will middlemen force minimal prices justified by the idea of supposed ‘guaranteed steady work’, but the deadlines are also nearly impossible to maintain.

“[Artisans] do not know how to price their goods or even asses the demand for their products,” said Kenza, Co-Founder and Operations Specialist of The Anou Cooperative, a cooperative focused on supporting Moroccan artisans.

The minimal money amount that the artisan ends up taking home does not – or barely – cover the production costs, let alone provide a living wage. As a way to keep up with demand, artisans rely on their children to help with production. 

According to Morocco’s Higher Commission for Planning (HCP), roughly more than 119,000 children (or 1.5% of Moroccans aged between 7 and 17) are currently partaking in economic activities.

Although Morocco is transitioning away from child labour and encouraging their children to pursue an academic career, a handful of remote villages and small towns still continue to employ children.

This system imposed by rogue middlemen creates a helpless loop where artisans cannot break out of financial struggles due to overwork and lack of income methods.

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Artisans who avoid deals with private entities can resort to government programs and initiatives for support, except that the governmental artisan support systems are deeply flawed.

For instance, part of the support initiative is local governmental entities helping organise and fund tradeshows. Although these trade shows can help artisans grow – mainly through exposure – the preparations needed to accommodate the shows outweigh the generated revenue.

“Organisers of trade shows treat us [artisans] like cattle. They book the cheapest hotels possible, overcrowd the trade shows with too many vendors, and don’t help cover miscellaneous costs such as food or transportation,” one female artisan who preferred to remain anonymous told The New Arab.

Due to the inefficiency of governmental efforts, many artisans seek shelter among established cooperatives, associations, or initiatives. According to most of the artisans interviewed, these community-created entities have massively helped artisans.

However, female artisans were at a disadvantage. Given that most of these groups were male-led, women who joined were required to receive consent from their husbands. At the same time, the sexism and privilege given to their male counterparts excluded female members.

Kenza recalled her and friends’ experiences saying, “Male lead associates always take the credit for our products… No matter where we go, female artisans are always treated unfairly.” 

Left fending for scraps, Morocco's street vendors fight to survive [Getty Images]

While some community-led associations are not perfect, the underlying conclusion is that these groups have done more good than harm to artisans in remote villages.

One shining example of this is The Anou Cooperative, an initiative made by artisans for artisans in order to promote fair trade. They highlight skilled craftspeople, compensate members fairly, and even teach them business, e-commerce, and technical skills.

“When I was a kid, my mother and I were selling rugs in the weekly markets. I remember this one customer who kept stomping and dirtying one of my mother’s friends’ rugs to force her to sell it to her at a cheap price. That experience stuck with me,” replied Kenza when asked about her motivation for founding The Anou Collective.

“I was sick of the mistreatment and unfairness we artisans received. So we started the Anou to give power to artisans for them to become independent,” she added.

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Artisans and skilled craftsmen are fading away from Morocco. Some have given up their trade for better income opportunities while others refuse to pass on the artisan struggle to their children, prioritising education and academia instead.

But there remains hope among the community in deconstructing artisan exploitations. Through ethical shopping, fair trade, and knowing the source of products tourists can help revive and promote the local artisan scene and keep the Moroccan Medina Souq aesthetic alive.

Abderahemane Nejam is a trilingual writer from Morocco who is passionate about video games, entrepreneurship, and interesting stories

Follow him on Twitter: @AbderahemaneN