Striking textile workers in Morocco are appealing for solidarity. Their strike has become a major battle against a powerful multinational over the right to form a union.
Workers at British-owned company Dewhirst, the majority of them women, are staging daily demonstrations outside a factory in Tangiers after walking out in support of sacked union militants.
The dispute began on 20 December when Dewhirst – a major clothing manufacturer whose customers include retail giant Marks & Spencer – granted the right to form a union in its factory. The company then refused to recognise the union chosen by the workers.
A representative of the strikers told Socialist Worker that the majority of workers opted to join the National Union of Moroccan Workers (UNTM), a militant union aligned to an opposition party.
'After the vote Dewhirst decided to recognise a rival union – one which we felt would do the management's bidding,' the striker explained.
'Two of our workers who then set up an UNTM union office in the factory were sacked. Then the company dismissed a group of 71 workers for holding a canteen meeting to protest against the victimisation.'
The company claimed that the workers 'intimidated' the managers. Over 360 workers walked out and have been picketing the plant ever since.
The strikers said that the dispute goes to the heart of the rights of workers against a global giant.
'When the company first set up in Morocco, it provided bonuses, job opportunities and the right to organise a union,' a strikers' representative told Socialist Worker.
'But five years later all that has gone. We earn the minimum wage – around £90 a month. That's just 50 pence an hour.
'Some workers spend almost half of their wages on medicines to treat the illnesses contracted in the factory.
'Most of them suffer from depression and heavy stress. Many women workers in the factory also complain of sexual harassment and abuse.
'We work an official 44 hour week, but with overtime this can sometimes rise to an extra 20 hours on top of that.
'A line of 24 operators can produce more than 500 garments a day. Even if these are each sold at £30, that produces a healthy profit for the company.'
In November 2005 the company sacked 162 workers as unrest spread over working conditions.
According to the workers, conditions in the factory are unbearable. In the summer temperatures inside the plant can hit 50°C.
When workers complained about the conditions they were told, 'The gate of the factory is big enough for an elephant. So it is large enough to get you out!'
One worker spoke of constant pressure to raise productivity: 'The foremen come with their chronometers and measure how much work you do in one minute.
'Then they multiply the amount of work by 60 minutes and then by eight hours.
'If the workers do not achieve the production target based on this assessment they are punished.'
Another describes the humiliation as women workers have to ask for permission to go to the toilet.
Workers are also forced to carry a special badge indicating that they 'have permission'.
Between January 2000 and May 2004 Dewhirst shed thousands of jobs in Britain, closing major factories in Peterlee, Sunderland, Hull and across Wales. It transferred production to Morocco, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The company claimed it needed to cut costs, despite year on year increases in sales and annual profits of £23 million.
After using its Moroccan factories to destroy jobs in Britain, the company is now hunting for even cheaper labour in Asia.
'Dewhirst previously had five factories in Morocco. It has already closed three of these and plans to close another and move production to Asia where wages are even lower,' a striker said.
A representative of Marks & Spencer said it would not intervene and told the striking workers 'our supplier has acted within Moroccan law'. They dismissed the strike as illegal.
The strikers are appealing for support from British trade unions: 'Please don't forget us – workers in another part of the world in danger.
'We need to fight the globalisation which is becoming a catastrophe for workers right across the world.'
For more on the strike, including videos of the strikers, go to solidarity486.skyblog.com