The Cultural Representation of the Labour Contract in Morocco, part 2

By Paul Willis and Mohammed Maarouf*

The very choice and range of euphemisms show the formations and historical sedimentations of culturally accepted channels for the understanding and practice of atavistic reciprocities which defy the name of “corruption”. Within this whole universe of meaning it is hardly surprising that bosses can expect and be expected to function as a maraboutic-like “distribution centre” or at least have to operate in relation to its expectations. They can develop and enhance their status as being a genuine “son of the people” boss by adopting a range of charitable practices including:

  • Tipping workers for extra-work
  • Helping them financially in moments of crisis: sickness, death of a relative
  • Helping them in observing rituals like Ramadan, and the Great Feast
  • Helping them at the beginning of the school year by buying their children school-books
  • Sending them to pilgrimage
  • Employing one of their relatives

Using influential contacts to save a worker’s relative from prison or help a worker or his relative to receive medical care in the public hospital.

By adopting this range of practices the boss can assume that the loyalty of his workforce will follow. The workers work willingly and even undertake extra tasks without complaint. They feel that they are under the obligation of his virtues and they have to pay allegiance to him. It is a social bond. We argue that average Moroccans activate the schema of submission once they think they are in the presence of authority so that authority derived from capitalist relations is likely to produce similar effects. It would be naive and simplistic to say that the boss literally occupies the position of the saint/ sultan, but it seems that companies can be structured as miniatures of the social world in which the worker lives. This may be done consciously but is achieved anyway through general cultural continuity and isomorphism.

Certainly multinationals try to adapt themselves to the local Moroccan cultural forms with respect to specificities of superficial and external appearance and politeness but whether deliberately or not, so are maintained and transferred the same hierarchies and instances.

Moroccan-born employers operate in the maraboutic and religious world which encloses both them and their workers and so are likely to be seen and see themselves as constituting something of a special kind of “distribution centre”. Here the terms and relations of the western legal “employment contract” matter less than what might be thought of as an unwritten covenant which binds individuals together in social and cultural relations of moral compulsion, dignity, respect and integrity – part of the Moroccan lexicon of such a covenant is the Good Word (lkelma) or sincerity (l-ma‘qul).

This is an employment relation which is a cousin of the authoritarian cultural schema discussed earlier and should be understood as an archetypal embedding of an economic relation within a complex indigenous cultural form. The employee is hired not so much on the basis of a rational or bureaucratic assessment of skills but on the basis of “charity”, of an “honourable work”. From the employee’s side it follows that there is a duty not of an economic or legal kind but of a binding social, religio-cultural and ethical kind, a gift-exchange cultural model characterized by the obligation not to “bite the hand that feeds you”. In our interviews it is clear that for a certain kind of Moroccan worker these moral and religio-cultural binds are of great importance and also overlap in quite specific ways with wider systems of belief, dependence and religion. Here is a construction worker interviewed in El Jadida on a previous boss that he rated highly:

Said: The boss was just paying your hours, the hours we actually worked, no holidays or benefits … but he was a good boss, a son of the people, he gave me money for the Great Feast, he bought for me the sacrifice of the Great Feast … if he sees you working and you are early he may put his hand in his pocket and give you twenty dirhams, it is nice when they tip you like that.

These are typical remarks about the son-of-the-people boss and the culturally gift exchange embedded employment relation. There are certainly a wider range of employment types than this with multi-nationals more likely to offer contractual employment relations with stated benefits and holiday entitlements but also a more distant social/cultural relation though still massively benefiting from the expectations associated with the traditional covenant.

Another kind of less balanced and more exploitative employment relation must be mentioned. An ex-dish washer at one of Mazagan’s (a multinational hotel chain) restaurants says that he has left his job because of its disorganized hard work. He was employed via Adecco. He is an electrician graduate but was employed at Mazagan as a dish washer. He explains the system of work: There are two teams, a team that gets in at 7 and goes out at 4 and a team that gets inside at 4 and gets out at 1:00 after midnight. There is one hour pause. The problem is when there is too much work, the 4 o’clock team stays till 7 o’clock and then gets out helping the waiters in the restaurant. We never get out at the exact time, too much work and we do free overtime. So I quit. What is bothering me and I don’t understand it, the directors of the institution are gwer (foreigners) and they know the law of work and rights of people. Why when they come here they do not practice them? They do like Moroccans?

Such recurrent statements collected from the field suggest that multinationals may also pick up, perhaps by default in subcontracting, from the Moroccan common cultural ground a very common practice of what we term the “pirate labour employment relation” in dealing with Moroccan workers. Moroccan “Pirate bosses” simply hire day labourers for the lowest possible wages and exploit them to the hilt, though even here there may be the trappings of a charitable relation echoing or trying to echo some aspect or another of the traditional cultural schemata. Nevertheless, at the bottom of social space, a great bulk of workers may still suffer the direct coercion of an “authoritarian boss” with few cultural and material dispensations. “Pirate bosses” are opportunists; they seize the most favourable conditions to make a quick profit. They do not care much about work or workers.

Respondents’ opinions in addition to field observations suggest that the pirate son-of-a-bitch model is the most predominant. Many ask if there is any solution or change on the horizon. Our ongoing work aims to fill out these types and passages between the categories described above especially under ever heightening pressures of marketisation and “modernization”.

Though the power/culture schemas discussed before limit collectivism, Trade Unionism is an authorized long-standing presence on the organizational scene in Morocco. So far, though, Trade Union organization is fragmented and full of schisms, not a real option for most workers especially those subject to “Pirate bosses”. In some manner still in search of social justice, workers may sometimes resort to individual reactions such as aloofness, looting and criminality at work, including sabotage. Up to the present, however, there is little sign of change in the patterns discussed, and the relations of domination and submission are likely to be more or less sustained for the moment.

Yet, lurking potential seeds of resistance remain and should not be overlooked. It is perfectly possible that if and when, under capitals sway and advance, power over-reaches itself and becomes too greedy it will be tempted overly to expose itself as merely coercive and exploitative. It may then lose its cultural legitimacy so risking fierce labour disputes and indiscipline as traditional cultural resources are turned to resistance and rebellion instead of submission – likely social responses, be it noted, undertaken not only out of economic grievance familiar in the Western reference but also out of deep and atavistic feelings of cultural betrayal specific to Morocco.

*Dr. Paul Willis, Beijing Normal University, China & Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco