“L’kheddama” (“The maid.”) That is how many Moroccan families refer to the domestic worker in their employ, whom they call by her first name. As for her last name, maybe the housewife remembers it, from the day she hired her and made a photocopy of her ID (you never know, in case she steals something ...) Or maybe she doesn’t. Why would she remember the maid’s surname, after all? Nobody ever uses it.
The abuse against domestic workers in Morocco starts with profound discrimination: almost invisible to society. Until recently, they also didn’t exist in the eyes of the law. Excluded from the Moroccan Labor Code, these women, who are most often from the countryside and have little or no education, had no legal rights in terms of minimum wages, working hours, or even days off. Their employers could overwork or underpay them, and suffer no legal consequences.
But things will change now. On July 26, the Moroccan parliament passed a law that regulates domestic work in Morocco. The new law, which will enter into force one year after its publication, requires proper labor contracts for domestic workers, limits their daily working hours, guarantees days off and paid vacations, and sets a minimum wage. The law also provides financial penalties for employers who violate these provisions, and even prison sentences for repeat offenders.
As part of its research on child domestic workers – under age 18 — in Morocco in 2005 and 2012, Human Rights Watch gathered damning evidence. Some "petites bonnes” (“little maids”), as they are called in Morocco, stated that their employers frequently beat and insulted them, prevented them from going to school, and sometimes refused them adequate food. Some worked for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for no more than US$11 per month.
The new law sets 18 as the minimum age for domestic workers, with a phase-in period of five years during which 16 and 17-year old girls will be allowed to work. This last provision was strongly criticized by Insaf, a collective of Moroccan nongovernmental organizations that opposes child labor.
That is not the only debatable provision of the new law. Adult domestic workers must work 48 hours per week, while the Moroccan labor code provides for a maximum of 44 hours for other sectors. Another source of inequality is the minimum wage. The wage guaranteed for domestic workers is only 60 percent of the minimum guaranteed by the labor code. Some say that since many domestic workers live with their employers, the food and shelter they get is for a partial in-kind payment. But that is not enough to justify a 40 percent difference. The International Labour Organization (ILO) allows for in-kind payments, but specifies that such payments should be limited, to allow for a salary that guarantees a decent standard of living for the workers and their families. It is also worth noting that living at their workplace is rarely a choice for domestic workers, as such an arrangement mainly serves the employers’ interests.
Despite the limitations of the new law, however, it will provide legal protection for the first time to some of the country’s most vulnerable workers. This is a real success, for which we should congratulate the government and also—perhaps especially—Moroccan nongovernmental organizations that campaigned for this ground-breaking reform for many years.
Now that the law exists, the next challenge will be making sure it is carried out. For that purpose, the next government (elections are scheduled this fall) will have to establish enforcement mechanisms, in particular labor inspectors who will visit homes where domestic workers are employed. The government will also have to open a broad public awareness campaign, preferably on national television and in Moroccan Arabic – the language most likely to be understood by everyone concerned–so that employees will know their rights and employers they duties.
Enforcing this law will create a social shock wave in Morocco. After decades of quasi-forced servitude, hundreds of thousands of "kheddamat" will finally raise their heads and be recognized for what they are: citizens with rights.