Moroccan 'mule women' welcome trolley reform to back-breaking trade

Moroccan 'mule women' welcome trolley reform to back-breaking trade
Permission to use trolleys is one several new reforms aiming to curb the gruelling work of 'mule women' who transport tax-exempt goods on their person across the Morocco-Spain border.
4 min read
18 April, 2018
Incidents arising from the dangerous trade have inspired a wave of reforms [Getty]

It's a form of hard labour that has provoked an outcry - Moroccan women bent double, overburdened by goods approaching or exceeding their own bodyweight.

For years, thousands of such porters have crossed the border every day into Ceuta, a Spanish enclave perched on the northernmost tip of Morocco. Porters can earn a small wage by transporting goods from the Spanish territory into Morocco on their person - in doing so avoiding customs tax - and can earn a small markup when the goods are sold on.

But now an initiative aims to ease the burden by encouraging the women - who are paid peanuts to exploit this Moroccan tax loophole - to use trolleys.

"It's less trying than before," said Najat, one of the porters whose back-breaking work has earned them the nickname "mujeres mulas", meaning "mule women", in Spanish. 

"It's a good thing, especially for those with health problems," added the mother of two, whose husband is unemployed.

On a hill towering above the Mediterranean between Ceuta and the Moroccan town of Fnideq, Najat, who is in her 40s, waited to pass routine checks at a small pedestrian border post.

Read more: Gibraltar, Ceuta and Melilla: Spain's unequal sovereignty disputes

Ceuta emerged as a military and commercial port under Spanish rule dating back to the 15th century. Today it has a population of around 85,000, enjoying a degree of autonomy from Madrid.

Moroccans from neighbouring areas are allowed to cross into Ceuta for a short period each day.

Najat was equipped with her new wheels.

Welded locally, the device is "much more durable than trolleys sold in the shops", she enthused.

For the past five years, Najat has been entering the Spanish enclave twice a week, arriving back several gruelling hours later with bundles of goods.

She makes around 20 euros ($25) for each round trip, delivering the items to merchants; approximately the same cost as her new trolley.

While goods brought by vehicle from the European Union are subject to import duties at the Moroccan border, items taken on foot are exempt.

At least four women porters were trampled to death last year, in stampedes at the border post - one of only two land frontiers between the EU and Africa

Under pressure from NGOs following a string of incidents, including deaths from border stampedes, traders and authorities in Ceuta launched the trolley initiative this month, to complement a raft of other reforms.

At dawn, a group of 100 women were the first to cross the frontier to a commercial zone just inside the Spanish enclave. The zone was built in 2004 to reduce congestion in the centre of Ceuta.

Metal hangars house an array of merchandise: clothes imported from China, cleaning products, basic foodstuffs and decorative items.

'Difficult on slopes'

"The situation is improving, thank God," said 35-year old Touria, a scarf wrapped around her head. She had come to look for food products.

Other reforms include a daily limit on the number of porters crossing the border and alternating days for men and women.

At least four women porters were trampled to death last year, in stampedes at the border post - one of only two land frontiers between the EU and Africa.   

Private security agents have been employed in the commercial zone, paid by local traders and the authorities in Ceuta. 

Read more: The Middle East's women are championing their own change

"We will not see any more shameful images on TV," said a security guard, who helps ensure the porters queue for their turn in an orderly manner.

He described the efforts by authorities as "a step" forwards for human rights.

Scrolling through his smart phone, the burly Moroccan showed what he called "images of chaos" taken a year ago, that he said he encountered on a near-daily basis.

"All that belongs to the past," he said.

But he believes more should be done to help the women. "Now we must reduce the weight of the parcels."

The exploitation of porters "began in the early 2000s and hasn't stopped growing since then", Mohamed Benaissa, president of the Morocco-based Northern Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP

Under heavy rain, Fatima struggled to steer her trolley, piled high with 60 kilograms (130 pounds) of boxes containing a Spanish brand of sweets.

The trolley does not "roll on its own, it must be steered, and it is difficult on slopes", she said. The new measure, according to Fatima, has "changed nothing".

"Before, I had backache and knee pain, now I have pain in my arms," said the Fnideq resident in her 50s, adding she would prefer to work in a factory, even with lower pay.