When Ayoub Saoud wanted to go to his job in call centre Casablanca B2S, 20 security guards barred the way. They would not let him, along with six other employees, go to work. The company had frozen their salaries, suspended their functions and filed a lawsuit against them. The reason? All seven are union members, elected to the works council … and took part in a strike on 21 April 2022. Union-busting is the daily lot of union members in Moroccan call centres. The companies, generally multinational groups, fire workers, intimidate them or bribe them to resign, they are bent on preventing unionisation at all costs. In the case of B2S, which belongs to the Italian group Comdata, the fact that 80% of the personnel are unionised was not a fore gone conclusion but the fruit of a hard-fought battle.
Morocco, offshore paradise
With its 120,000 employees, the sector is a major employer in the country, especially for recent graduates. Since the 1990s, European multinationals have been relocating their call centres to the global South. Many French-speaking companies have picked Morocco as their “offshore” destination. The kingdom’s incentive programs provide them with tax breaks, and they have reason to expect cheap labour and weak unions. As for the Moroccan government, it has its eye on job creation.
Jobs … but at what cost? This is what one of Saoud’s comrades in arms, employed by Majorel, wants to know. “If burning out a whole generation is the idea, then no thank you!” Majorel is a German multinational specialising in call centres, soon to merge with Sitel, another giant in the same sector. At what cost indeed! Because the work in these multinational centres is exhausting. A 44-hour week, with no sick pay, workers are under constant pressure to reach certain goals, such as making a given number of calls in each length of time. Wages can be made up of bonuses by as much as 40%. If none are forthcoming at the end of the month, it is not easy to make ends meet. Even though call-centre salaries (which range from 4 to 5,000 dirhams – $389–486) are well above the minimum wage of 2,800 dirhams (approx. $280).
Ayoub Saoud, who was suspended from his job at B2S, is general secretary of the Fédération nationale des centres d’appel et des métiers de l’offshoring (FNCAMO), a member of the Union marocaine du travail (UMT). In December 2021, he and his comrades at B2S presented a list of demands with an eye to initiating collective bargaining with their employer. Their main demand was keeping wages in line with runaway inflation.
The French branch of the Italian multinational which manages the site refused to negotiate. Instead, Comdata Maroc’s legal advisor offered the union leaders to pay them to resign. The latter reused and took the case to the labour inspectorate and subsequently to the local governor and the Ministry of Labour. Even after three summonses from the authorities, B2S has failed to react. “So, we had to go for stronger actions,” says Saoud, and in the end 400 of the 1,400 employees walked out for half a day on 21 April, a strike which ended a few days later for seven of them at the police station.
A Criminal code held over from colonial times
Article 288 of the Moroccan criminal code was enacted when the country was still a colony of France. The French authorities were determined to prevent Moroccan workers from going on strike. It stipulates:
Is liable to imprisonment for a term of from one month to two years and a fine of 120 to 5, dirhams or only one of these two penalties, whomsoever, through violence, assault, threats or fraudulent practices, has brought about or prolonged, attempted to bring about or to prolong, a concerted work stoppage in order to impose a wage increase or decrease or to interfere with the free exercise of industrial rights or the right to work. When this violence, these assaults, threats, or fraudulent practices were perpetrated as part of a concerted plan, offenders may be banished locally for a period of from two to five years.
When Morocco became independent, the State adopted this Criminal Code, including article 288. Today, B2S uses it to attack Moroccan organisers. These are liable to be fined and gaoled for a period of from two months to five years.
“These are mafia-like mores, “says Saoud,”whole families are affected. What are they supposed to do when suddenly no more money is coming in?" He and the six other union members all lost their jobs and their earnings after that strike. Most of them have children. Once they are known as union activists, they will have a hard time finding a job in the same sector, the other companies will not hire them either.
The constant threat of relocation
Many call-centre employees are recent graduates who only want a temporary job. The turnover is considerable, workers move back and forth between different sites and employers. Many migrants from French-speaking Sub-Saharan Africa also work in this sector. Undocumented people often find themselves working for “informal” call centres, where working conditions are much worse. Moroccan law only allows Moroccan citizens to join a union. This lack of stability among the personnel makes unionising difficult. Faced with situations like that of Saoud, workers are simply afraid of losing their job if they join the union. In addition to which there is the stigma attached to unions, presented as troublemakers that are harmful to the company and are liable to destroy jobs. There is the constant threat that the activity might be relocated to countries where conditions are even more favourable for capital, where unions pose no problem.
For indeed, unionising in Moroccan call centres is gradually making headway thanks to the work of the FNCAMO which has been going on for more than ten years now. At several sites operated by multinationals like Intelcia, Sitel or Webhelp, organisers have managed to impose the principle of a union hall and open one. With Majorel, they have even managed to negotiate the first company-wide agreement in the history of the Moroccan offshore sector. Often, however, their efforts fail at the first try and several “generations” of employees lose their jobs until the company finally relents. Thus, last year in Rabat, Sitel and Webhelp fired several workers who wanted to join the union. When the FNCAMO organised a protest against these layoffs in front of the site, the police showed up a few minutes later with a helmet and shield to scatter the demonstrators.
Demanding for a “decent job”
And yet freedom of association and the right to strike are guaranteed by the Moroccan constitution. A law better regulating the settlement of workplace disputes has often been announced as forthcoming but has never been enacted. The government’s attitude towards unions is ambivalent. Thus, in the 1990s, King Hassan II did indeed initiate a “social dialogue,” meant to bring together trade unions and management around the bargaining table. But the project was not reactivated until 2011 when King Mohamed VI also tried to defuse a difficult situation and put an end to the protests with a few social concessions.
The historical role of trade unions in Morocco has changed considerably: they once played an active part in the political opposition but have since become participants in a “social partnership.” While during the eighties and nineties, the Confédération démocratique du travail (CDT) and the UMT organised general strikes against the neoliberal austerity policies, today they are much more conservative. A new vocabulary has appeared, promoted by institutions like the International Labour Office (ILO). Trade unions now base their demands on the notion of “decent work,” [defined as follows by ILO – > http://www.oit.org/global/topics/decent-work/lang--en/index.htm]:
Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for all, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.
But at the same time, they claim to help increase the company’s productivity. The image of trade unions as radical troublemakers is avoided at all costs.
Despite this shift in emphasis, the UMT’s membership remains critical of the labour-management dialogue which they believe to be inadequate. In their view, it tends to be aimed at placating tempers rather than bringing about real improvements. As for the system of labour inspection, it has neither enough personnel nor the power to enforce workers’ rights. Multinationals like Comdata take advantage of these shortcomings while the government simply looks the other way. Call centres are part of an economic policy actively promoted by Morocco and therefore considered of strategic importance.
International trade union cooperation
From a union standpoint, international cooperation is equally strategic. The FNCAMO, for example, has contacts with the French union SUD and with UNI Global Union, a federation for the skills and services sectors. Saoud and his comrades antagonised the B2S management by their involvement in transnational coordination with the trade-unions active within the Italian parent company, Comdata. The latter is currently preparing to sell the Moroccan centre to another call-centre giant. It was in this context that the company management stepped up its union-busting.
The unions also bring pressure to bear on the principals in other countries. Again, these are multinational firms like the French tale-communications giant Orange, the Parisian transport company RATP (buses and underground) or TotalEnergies. They are challenged to respect the rights of the workers in their supply chains. “They have a reputation to uphold”, Saoud observes. The CFDT’s Fédération Conseil Communication Culture is active inside Orange and has issued on this matter a statement urging the firm’s management to keep a closer watch on the practices of its subcontractors.
While Comdata in Morocco has just been awarded the seal “best place to work” in the country1, Ayoub Saoud must cope with his personal future. He and the other UMT members are battling to get their jobs back. They have sent a letter to Comdata’s CEO and have also lodged a complaint with the National Contact Point (NCP) for a responsible conduct in Moroccan companies2 regarding this breach of their fundamental rights. The fact that many international companies present in Morocco fail to obey the laws and remain unimpressed by either the authorities or the trade unions, is seen by Saoud as an injustice: “In France, you can fire someone because he belongs to the workers’ council? No. Then why do these companies think they are on conquered territory? It is sheer neocolonialism.”
1This international program of company certification has been in place in Morocco for 12 years now. The idea is to reward companies that distinguish themselves by their human resources policies and practices and the commitment of their employees.
2NCPs are national agencies for the promotion of the guiding principles [of the OECD] in the form of platforms of mediation and conciliation.