I was standing in front of a sewing factory in Fes, looking for a girl I had met the day before. She had promised me she would return this morning and answer my questions about factory work in Fes. I was an American doing research and I needed answers. But she was not there. I ran into two other girls, girls who had also been standing at that factory gate the day before: Rhema, and Fatima Zahor.
“Are you still looking around here?” Rhema asked, greeting me. “This girl,” Rhema said, motioning toward her companion, “has also worked in factories for a long time. She’ll tell you what you need to know—walk with us.” And so I did.
Rhema and Fatima Zahor were headed for a factory at the end of the street, where, it was rumored, cutting specialists were needed. Fatima Zahor was an expert in cutting fabric and she walked quickly ahead of us. When we arrived at the factory gate, though, we found the factory was not hiring.
“Connections. Money. That’s what you need to get a job here,” Fatima Zahor said, disgusted. “You need to know someone in the factory or you need to pay them off.”
“Really? How much money would you need?” I asked.
“About 250 dirham, probably, to get in.” Rhema said. “Unless you have connections or money, you’ll never get a factory job. Those who are poor—like us—look all day long and find nothing. Not even the money for the bus ride home.”
Rhema was small and thin, white-skinned, wearing blue jeans and a long shirt that hung close to her knees. She looked nothing like Fatima Zahor, who was taller and more imposing, with dark skin and curly black hair, oiled and pulled tight against her head. Rhema said she was sixteen. Fatima Zahor did not tell me her age, but she did not look much older. They had met just this morning at a factory gate and had decided to continue their job search together. It was now mid-morning and they had been walking since dawn having arrived in the district at 7:00 A.M., when the factories began operations.
We passed one neat white factory surrounded by a well tended yard where thick and sturdy red geraniums grew. “The French companies look like embassies,” Rhema said. “They have heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer, like this one. You need to make a formal application to even get inside there. Nobody stands at the door there.” Indeed, there was no clutch of girls at the gate as there were at other factories.
“How do you know,” I asked them, “whether a factory is good place to work?”
Fatima Zahor answered immediately. “Three things tell you if a factory is good: The factory follows the law, has good pay and has respect. These are the three things that matter.”
“Respect is important,” added Rhema. “They should respect the girls who work there. What matters is that they don’t yell at us, they don’t constantly berate us. Like at Confection—where I worked last year—they would constantly yell at us. They’d call us prostitutes, treat us like dogs. This is what we don’t want.”
We continued to walk. The morning had dawned cold but as the sun reached higher into the sky we could feel its warmth. We moved from factory to factory knocking on gates, talking to the small clusters of girls waiting in front of each, speaking with factory guardians. Sometimes we were encouraged to wait, told there might be work. Other times we left almost without stopping: the group at the door was too large, or the chances of late-comers finding a space would be impossible. Sometimes, after we had waited, a factory guardian would appear at the gates telling the job seekers to go home. No workers would be needed today.
As we moved I asked questions, first trying to understand Fatima Zahor’s history. As a girl of twelve, she had been sent to Tangiers to live with her mother’s brother. There, in the house of her uncle, she had “worked a little”—probably as a child servant, although she would not admit to having been sent there as a maid. When she grew older, she found work in a Tangiers sewing factory and eventually returned to her family, to work in the sewing factories of Fes. From her estimates, she had been working in factories for at least five years.
“I know how to do the fabric cutting, which is a good skill to have—it is difficult and important. For cutting you must have a sharp mind, you must be able to write. And I know other things—packaging, final control.” She pointed to a blouse she was wearing, “You see this blouse—I made the whole thing by myself. And I have sewn other things—entire outfits.”
“Why are you out of work now?” I asked.
“At the last job they just got rid of me—they just threw me out. I had been there a while, I was earning a lot of money, so they just threw me out and let in someone new.”
“Was that the last job you held?”
“No, then I got another job, at another factory. I was there for four months and then I had an accident. I fell out of a taxi as the cab was moving. The door of the cab was no good. I was in the hospital for fifteen days. I thought I would die, but I didn’t. But then after that the factory where I was working did not want me back.”
“Why not—was it their taxi?” I asked.
“No, the accident had nothing to do with them. But I think they were afraid that I was going to blame them. But I wouldn’t have—because the accident had nothing to do with them. Now my family is trying to get a lawyer, to get some money for the accident. But that probably won’t happen. We really don’t have laws like that in Morocco—do you have those laws in America?”
I did not know what to say. I didn’t answer her question and it was quiet for a while. And then I asked her if that was the last job she had had, before now, before this current job quest.
“Well, after that I worked at a plastic bag factory, right here, in Sidi Brahim. But I only worked there for one week. They trained me to use a machine—I would push a pedal to seal the bottom parts of plastic bags closed. But the factory was full of dirt and there was a bad smell and I just could not bear it. That kind of factory is for a person who has no skills at anything.”
We kept walking. Time was passing and there seemed to be no hope of a job for these girls. The sun kept rising higher in the sky, blinding us as it climbed. The girls walked slowly, moving their hands to their foreheads to shade their eyes when we turned a corner to face into the sun. We were silent again and then we came upon the factory from which Fatima Zahor had been unceremoniously released, for reasons of seniority. I crossed the street with Fatima Zahor, since she wished to avoid seeing anyone she might recognize at her former place of employment. But Rhema approached that factory gate, hopeful. Before long Rhema ran back across the street to tell us she had found an old acquaintance in the cluster of workers standing at that factory gate, and this girl had told her to wait—there might be a job.
“Go ahead—go on without me,” Rhema told us. Then looking at Fatima Zahor, she said decisively, “The important thing is that we meet again here tomorrow morning, so that we can search together.” The two made a date to meet in front of one particular factory and invited me to join them. Rhema dashed eagerly back across the street and Fatima Zahor and I continued on out of the district and towards the center of town. It was almost noon now, and there was no use searching any longer.