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III. The Scope of Child Labor in Morocco

Morocco has one of the highest child labor rates in the Middle East and North Africa. Although Moroccan law prohibits children under fifteen from working, government statistics suggest that at least six hundred thousand children age seven through fourteen— 11 percent of all children in that age group—are engaged in economic activity.10 Of those working children, 372,000 are under age twelve.11  The true number of working children is undoubtedly higher, as these figures do not include children younger than seven or older than fifteen, are based on labor force surveys that by their nature are poorly suited to capture data on informal and illegal forms of labor, and do not account for a significant proportion of children whom the government categorizes as neither working nor attending school but whom labor experts believe may in fact be working.12 Morocco is expected to release additional data on child labor collected as part of a 2004 census in late 2005 or early 2006, but according to ILO-IPEC, “[t]he survey takers didn’t have child domestic labor as a priority so the data may not be complete.”13

Child labor in Morocco is largely a rural phenomenon, affecting an estimated 19 percent of all rural children age seven through fourteen, compared to 3 percent of all urban children in that age group.14 Rural child labor overwhelmingly consists of unpaid labor on family farms, while urban child labor also includes significant proportions of wage labor, self-employment, and apprenticeships.15 According to government data, urban child labor is largely divided among textiles (25 percent), other industries (20 percent), commerce (16 percent), domestic service (12 percent), and repairs (9 percent). Domestic service has the highest levels of paid employment of children, at 72 percent, far surpassing the next closest sector, textiles, at 29.8 percent.16

These estimates are based on the assumption that only ten thousand children under fifteen work as domestics, including four thousand boys.17 In contrast, a 2001 study by the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science estimated that between 66,000 and 86,000 girls under fifteen were working as child domestics, and a 2001 government survey found 13,580 girls under fifteen working as child domestics in the greater Casablanca area alone.18 Of the girls in the Casablanca survey, 870 were under eleven years old, making them some of the youngest child domestics in the world.19

Morocco’s child labor rates appear to have fallen slightly in the 1990s and in the first two years of the current decade (the most recent period for which data is available), a trend that some experts attribute in part to limited job opportunities for older children and a rise in school enrollment rates for younger children.20 It is not clear whether this statistical trend applies to child domestic workers under fifteen, who are an especially disadvantaged group, as we discuss below. In respect of greater school enrollment, thus far most government and NGO programs targeting child domestic labor have focused on providing them with nonformal education while they continue to work, rather than on preventing young girls from entering domestic work, enforcing existing legal protections against abuse and exploitation, or transitioning working girls back into full-time, formal education.21 

Factors contributing to child domestic labor

I started working when I was fourteen. My mother died when I was small and my father died when I was twelve. I lived with my father’s wife. We needed money so I went to work. It was me and my half sister, who is now eight years old. My father’s wife works now [that I don’t work anymore], but I haven’t seen her for a year.

A neighbor found me the job. I wanted to commit suicide, but then I thought, “No one will miss you.” So I went to the neighbor and she found me work in Casablanca.

We were very poor and I didn’t see a way out. I didn’t want to work in prostitution and I thought that killing myself would be better morally than dying of AIDS from prostitution.

—Nejla O., eighteen, interviewed in Casablanca, May 17, 2005

Moroccan child labor experts frequently cite poverty, poor quality education and poor access to education (particularly for girls), broken families, and widespread social acceptance of child labor as primary factors explaining the prevalence of child labor.22 In addition, studies have found that in Morocco and elsewhere, parents’ level of education and access to water and electricity also have a strong impact on whether rural children work.23 These rural push factors are particularly important for child domestic labor, because while child domestic laborers’ workplace is typically urban their origin is typically rural.

Twelve of the fifteen domestic workers Human Rights Watch interviewed were originally from rural areas with high poverty and unemployment rates, a pattern consistent with the findings of other studies.24 Morocco’s rural population continues to suffer the effects of a decade of frequent droughts and falling prices that devastated the agricultural sector.25 Extensive rural poverty has contributed to a high rate of rural-urban migration, which has in turn contributed to growing urban unemployment.26

Despite ongoing efforts by the Moroccan government to address rural poverty, progress has been slow. The World Bank estimated Morocco’s poverty incidence in 2005 to be about 15 percent, down from 19 percent in 1998/99; if those considered “economically vulnerable” are included, the incidence rate rises to 40 percent.27 Child domestics appear to be particularly likely to come from the most impoverished families. A 1999 study of child labor by the ILO and Morocco’s Ministry of Social Development, Solidarity, Employment, and Professional Development found that 82 percent of child domestics came from “very poor families,” and 87 percent from families “living with great difficulty.”28 In contrast, it found that 36 percent of the overall population of working children were living in “restricted circumstances,” and 36 percent in “abject poverty.”29

For children in families living below or near the poverty line, death, divorce, or disability of a wage earner in the household can overwhelm fragile coping mechanisms, increasing the likelihood that children will be sent to work to replace lost income. This appeared to be the case for most of the domestics we interviewed. Nasra J., twenty, said, “I am the only one [in my family] who worked. If my father had lived I would not have worked. All the others married and left home. I was twelve when my father died, and I went to work a year later.”30

Death or divorce also can cause a child to lose a valued protector in the family, leaving her vulnerable to abuse by a step-parent. Several domestics we interviewed reported being sent away to work in order to keep peace in the new marital household, or being told by a step-parent to work or leave. Seventeen-year-old Zahra H.’s parents divorced when she “was small,” and she began working when she was eight, along with her mother’s younger sister. She told us her mother sent her to work during her school vacations to keep her away from her stepfather:

My mom’s husband didn’t like us. He was mean so when we [Zahra H. and her mother’s sister] came home she would take us back to the broker. Her husband didn’t work and we gave mom our money and she paid his expenses. I was fed up with my mom and her husband. Mom didn’t love us and they both hit us. There was a time when I was going to commit suicide. When I was at [an NGO] they took me home to talk to my mom. Her husband said, “don’t come back unless you go to work.” [He told my mother,] “If you want [to see] your daughter, sell her.”31

Thirteen of the fifteen domestics Human Rights Watch interviewed had either never entered school or had dropped out by the end of fifth grade.32 High rates of nonattendance and early school leaving are reflective of barriers to girls’ education that make them available for work, and of child domestics’ extremely long working hours, which leave them with little time for study. While enrollment rates have risen significantly over the last decade, dropout rates remain high and ILO-IPEC still estimates that 1.5 to 2 million school-age Moroccan children are out of school, with the majority of those children living in rural areas. 33 Nonattendance rates and illiteracy rates for child domestics are especially high: a 2001 study of child domestics found that 84.3 percent of those under fifteen were illiterate, 83.3 percent had never attended school, and only 0.6 percent had made it to the second stage of basic education.34 These rates are markedly higher than those for all working children under fifteen.35 The reasons for these high rates are discussed in greater detail in Chapter IX, below.


[10] The estimate, by the Understanding Children’s Work Project, a joint initiative of the ILO, UNICEF, and the World Bank, is based on data from Morocco’s 2000 Labor Force Survey, and includes unpaid and illegal work, work in the informal sector, and production of goods for own use, but not household chores performed in the child’s own household. See ILO-UNICEF-World Bank, Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 14-15.

[11] In addition, 18 percent of children age twelve through fourteen work. ILO-UNICEF-World Bank, Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 17-18.

[12] The 2000 Labor Force Survey categorized 15 percent of children age seven through fourteen as neither working nor attending school. The authors of the ILO-UNICEF-World Bank study note that at least some of these children may be engaged in illegal or dangerous work, or usually work but were idle at the time of the survey.  ILO-UNICEF-World Bank, Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 16.

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Malak Ben Chekroun, ILO-IPEC officer, Rabat, May 30, 2005.

[14] ILO-UNICEF-World Bank, Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 18.

[15] Ninety-six percent of rural children age seven though fourteen work in agriculture, and 96 percent of those children work for their own families. ILO-UNICEF-World Bank. Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 20.

[16] ILO-UNICEF-World Bank, Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 20.

[17] ILO-UNICEF-World Bank. Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 21.  In explaining the apparent undercount, ILO-IPEC told Human Rights Watch that “[t]he problem could also be in the sample, as the sample was chosen according to the 1998 survey and that may not have been representative.“ Human Rights Watch interview with Malak Ben Checkroun, ILO-IPEC Officer, Rabat, May 30, 2005.

[18] The higher figure in the Fafo estimate includes “adopted” or “fostered” girls and girls with no kinship relationship to the head of the household, whom the authors argue may well be child domestics. The  UNICEF survey found 9,360 girls age fifteen through seventeen working as child domestics. Tone Sommerfelt (ed.), Domestic Child Labor in Morocco: An analysis of the parties involved in relationships to “Petites Bonnes,” Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science (Oslo: Fafo, 2001), pp. 15-17; Royame du Maroc haute Commissariate au Plan, Direction Régionale du Grand Casablanca, Etude sur les filles-domestique âgées de moins de 18 ans dans la Wilaya de Casablanca (Kingdom of Morocco, High Commission, Regional Office for Greater Casablanca, Study of Girl Domestics Under Eighteen Years of Age in Casablanca Province), (Rabat: UNFPA and UNICEF), 2001,  p. 39.

[19] Regional Office for Greater Casablanca, Study of Girl Domestics, p. 3. A 1995 study of child domestics by UNICEF and the LMPE found even higher incidence of very young girls working: 26.4 percent of the under fifteen-year-old girls surveyed were under ten years old, and 45.4 percent were age ten to twelve.  Mohamad Tahar Alaoui, “Resultats de l’enquete sur les Petites Filles ‘Bonnes’ Travaillant dans les Familles,” (”Results of the Study on Small Girls ‘Bonnes’ Working in Families”) in Ligue Marocaine pour la Protection de l’Enfance, Journee d’Etude et de Reflexion sur les Petites Filles ‘Bonnes’ Travaillant dans les Familles,  Rabat, January 19, 1996, p. 41. 

[20] ILO-UNICEF-World Bank, Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 19.

[21] See Chapter IX for a discussion of barriers to child domestics’ access to nonformal and formal education, and Chapter XI for a discussion of shortcomings in the government response to hazardous child domestic labor.

[22] See, for example, “Child Wage Labor,” a 2004 pamphlet (in Arabic) by the Labor Directorate of the Moroccan Ministry of Employment, Social Affairs, and Solidarity, p. 28.

[23] In Morocco, having an educated mother reduces by 5 percent the likelihood that a rural child will work, and increases the likelihood of attending school by 7 percent. Access to a primary school in the rural community (duwwar) increases the likelihood that a child will attend school  by 15 percent, and “reduces in almost equal measure the proportion of children working and the proportion neither working nor attending school.” Access to a water network connection and electricity reduce the probability of working by 18 and 10 percent, respectively. ILO-UNICEF-World Bank, Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 4. For a detailed discussion of the relationship between access to water and electricity and child labor rates in Morocco, see Lorenzo Guarcello, Scott Lyon, and Furio C. Rosati, Child Labor and Access to Basic Services: Evidence from Five Countries, A Joint ILO-UNICEF-World Bank Research Effort, draft, January 2004, [online] (retrieved September 20, 2005). 

[24] A 2001 government survey of child domestic workers in Casablanca province found that 87.5 percent of girls under fifteen and 85.8 percent of girls fifteen through seventeen had been born in the countryside.  More than half of those girls (55.3 percent) came from provinces designated to receive government development assistance (barnamaj al awaliyat al ijtima`iya, or BAJ). Regional Office for Greater Casablanca, Study of Girl Domestics, p. 39.

[25] While rural dwellers make up only about 46 percent of the total population, even after several years of improved harvests and increased spending on poverty eradication, the rural areas remain home to some two-thirds of Morocco’s poor and 90 percent of the extremely poor. ILO-UNICEF-World Bank. Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 9-11.

[26] For example, urban unemployment was 20 percent in 2003. World Bank, “Country Assistance Strategy for the Kingdom of Morocco,“ FY 2006-2009, Report No. 31879-MA, June 14, 2005,  pp. 1-2, [online] (retrieved July 17, 2005), p. 2, 5-6.

[27] Poverty incidence rose dramatically during that period, from 13.1 percent in 1990/91 to 19 percent in 1998/99—the latter figure translating to 5.3 million people, with another 7 million people considered “economically vulnerable,” i.e. at risk of falling into poverty. ILO-UNICEF-World Bank, Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 10; World Bank, “Country Assistance Strategy for the Kingdom of Morocco,” pp. 1-2.

[28] The study formed the basis for Morocco’s National and Sectoral Plan of Action on Child Labor. Mohamad al Manasif et al., `Amal al Atfal fi al Maghrib: tashkhis wa iktirah makhattat `amal wataniya wa qitaiya (Children's Work in Morocco: Diagnosis and Suggested National and Sectoral Plans), (Rabat: ILO-IPEC-Ministry of Social Development and Solidarity and Employment and Professional Development, October 1999), p. 71.

[29]al Manasif, Children's Work in Morocco: Diagnosis and Suggested National and Sectoral Plans, p. 20.

[30] Human Rights Watch interview with Nasra J., Casablanca, May 27, 2005.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with Zahra H., Casablanca, May 17, 2005.

[32] That is, before completing the first cycle of basic education, consisting of grades one through six.

[33] For example, the national net rate for primary school enrollment rose from 52.4 percent in 1990/1991 to 92 percent in 2003/2004, and the national net rate for middle school enrollment rose from 17.5 percent to 32 percent. World Bank, “Country Assistance Strategy for the Kingdom of Morocco,”  p. 8; Human Rights Watch interview with Malak Ben Chekroun, ILO-IPEC officer, Rabat, May 30, 2005.

[34] Regional Office for Greater Casablanca, Study of Girl Domestics, p. 40.

[35] According to the joint ILO-UNICEF-World Bank study, “[o]ver half of Moroccan working children have had no schooling at all, and most of the remainder (41 percent) have only attended the first cycle of the basic schooling level.” ILO-UNICEF-World Bank, Understanding Children’s Work in Morocco, p. 3.

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