‘Porteadoras’ Suffer Exploitation And Violence On The Border Between Morocco And Spain’s North African Enclaves

Every day on the border between Morocco and Spain’s North African enclaves Melilla and Ceuta, thousands of women act as porters – known locally as ‘porteadoras’ – to transport huge packages to trading points in Morocco. A tax loophole means that anything that can be carried by hand is exempt from tax and can be transported into Morocco duty free. Moroccans who live close to the Spanish border are permitted to travel across it without a visa, and due to the lack of employment opportunities and high levels of poverty in Morocco, many become involved in the organized smuggling of goods such as clothes, fabrics and toiletries. But the porters, employed by traders to transport these goods, are paid very little for carrying packages that often weigh as much as their body weight, and many suffer from the aggression and corruption of officials and other porters at the border point.

Whilst this trafficking has been tolerated by officials in Melilla and Ceuta, and Moroccan authorities accept it as a lucrative trade for Morocco, humanitarian organizations have raised concerns over the exploitation of porters and the violence they experience daily. These porters have historically been female and are frequently single mothers who may be divorced, widowed or victims of abuse. Such women have no choice but to work as porters, since they must feed their families and there is no other work available for them in Morocco. Further, increased levels of unemployment in Morocco have led to a greater number of male porters in recent years, threatening women’s livelihoods and resulting in increased violence on the border.

Responses to the exploitation and violence experienced by porteadoras at the Spanish-Moroccan border have been divided. Spain’s response to this smuggling has been relatively lukewarm, predominantly because the trafficking activities remain highly profitable for Melilla and Ceuta. However, there is also a sense that its ability to question the trade is limited: Spain’s very presence in North Africa is considered anachronistic by Moroccan authorities. Morocco, on the other hand, defends the trade, which offers employment to an estimated 15,000 women as porters and brings more than 80,000 metric tons of wares into Morocco every year. The response of Moroccan authorities is often motivated by their own investments in the trade, although others recognize that there is a need to reform. Some individuals, like Emilio Guerra of Unión Progreso y Democracia, have been more skeptical regarding the trafficking: ‘it’s carried out in conditions of semi-slavery,’ he stated, ‘what we would like is that they [the porters] work under a concrete set of rules in conditions that aren’t precarious.’

A number of reforms have been made to trading in order to protect many from injury, such as designating separate days for male and female porters and supplying trolleys for the porters who struggle to carry their loads. Yet this can hardly be seen as a consolation for those who rely on this employment to feed their children, since the provision of separate days for men and women only serves to increase the threat some women perceive to their livelihoods. Additionally, porteadoras have complained that the trolleys do not relieve the pain of carrying their loads, but only shift the burden from their backs to their arms. Alongside this, tensions experienced between the porters at the beginning of the trading day continue lead to stampedes and deaths. There has also been criticism towards the response of border officials, such as the Spanish Civil Guard, who maintain order by violence if there is any loss of control. Some officials are reportedly more lenient to those who offer them bribes. The violence of border officials and the partial reform of local authorities are insufficient to counter the exploitation experienced by thousands of women every day. If anything, these responses have only added to the burdens that they carry.

It is clear that the physical infrastructure at the Spanish-Moroccan border is inadequate for providing a safe space for the transportation of goods by porteadoras; the border crossing is narrow, with a 6-metre-high fence. The Spanish and Moroccan authorities ought to work together to re-design the border infrastructure to maximize the safety of the porteadoras, if their work is to continue. There is, of course, the argument that this organized trafficking should be brought to an end by changing the regulations on hand luggage, but this would bring no benefits to either the Spanish enclaves, Morocco, or the porteadoras themselves. Given that there is no other work for the female porters to do, and there is also increasingly limited work for men in Morocco, ending this trade would only aggravate the poverty that they already experience. Morocco, then, must either tackle its growing unemployment rate, providing jobs for those who rely on porter work to survive, or improve the working conditions of porters. This can be done by sanctioning traders who do not pay the porteadoras they employ an adequate rate.

More broadly, Moroccan women should be able to access better welfare systems and childcare services to ease domestic pressures, especially for those of single mothers. Spain should put pressure on Morocco to end any corruption – such as bribes or the involvement of local authorities – in the trade, and not tolerate the use of violence against the porteadoras. Another plausible recommendation would be that border rules are further relaxed so that porteadoras do not have to carry goods as hand luggage and could make use of equipment provided at the border. If the porteadoras were encouraged to work together in groups, border crossings would become more structured and less dangerous. Legislation must be passed to provide better security for porteadoras, to avoid employers exploiting them as casual labour without any insurance against injuries that they may sustain when carrying their packages. Any sudden measures that would increase tensions and violence at the border must not be sustained; the border should not be shut and hand luggage should not be restricted. Porteadoras must not be punished for the irresponsibility and incompetence of corrupt officials and governments. Either these authorities must be pressured to change, or deeper reform must be made to protect those who have no other choice but to work.

Philippa Payne