Super Subcultures

The Women of the World’s Most Backbreaking Border

As the sun rises over the chaotic borderland where Morocco flirts with Spain, hundreds of women report for an unthinkable daily grind.

The Women of the World’s Most Backbreaking Border

If Safia Azizi hadn’t been queuing at 7:20 a.m. by the narrow blue turnstiles along the border between Morocco and the Spanish town of Melilla, it might not have happened.

But she was. And this is usually the time of day when the Moroccan police open the barrier to the hundreds of women, most of them elderly, who cross from Morocco into Melilla, a Spanish-administered city along the coast of Morocco, to load their cargo.

Three female porters in Melilla, Spain, await the arrival of trucks with merchandise before crossing the border.
Three female porters in Melilla, Spain, await the arrival of trucks with merchandise before crossing the border.

“It looks as if they were going into the slaughterhouse!” Safia’s brother said the next day after taking a look at the turnstiles.

If she had not been there at that time on that morning, maybe today she would be crossing the border again, running to the storehouses and loading up to 175 pounds of goods on her back. Then she would race back to Morocco, deliver her cargo to the trader who hired her and line up to cross again through the blue turnstiles and load up again in the Spanish storehouses. But Safia will not do it any more because she was there that morning at 7:20 a.m. She was ready for a hard day’s work, with her djellaba, or Islamic dress, the only protection against the sharp cold of dawn and her hijab, or headscarf, perfectly arranged. “I never saw a single hair of her head,” her friend Dunia later recalled tearfully.

If Safia had not been pushed to the ground by the stampede, she would have earned fifteen euros that day for three trips back and forth across the border. She knew very well that the more trips she could make each day, the more money she would earn. But she could not avoid falling to the ground. The chaos on the Moroccan side of the border was a breeding ground for this uncontrollable force, the onrush of desperate women who ran her over.

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Shaima, a porter in Melilla.
Shaima, a porter in Melilla.

Safia, forty-one, was a graduate in Arabic literature from the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, her hometown, something unusual among the women working as porters. Like other unemployed graduates, she had left her hometown in search of a job. Someone told her that the border was an easy place to make money, so she registered as a resident in Nador, the last town in Morocco before the border, because only locals can cross to the Spanish side without a passport. Working as a porter demanded a huge physical effort, but she could earn enough money to make a living.

Who knows? If Safia had not been crushed to death she might have later found a professional job in her field. That November morning a policeman on the Spanish side of the border saw the stampede and tried to help the injured. By the time he got there, under an iron grey sky, he found a jumble of women and large packages on the ground, scattered by the force of the crowd. He had to shoot into the air to get through. But it was all in vain; the harm was done. The coroner’s autopsy confirmed that Safia died due to “a pulmonary hemorrhage caused by a violent chest compression.”

According to the International Labour Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, more than 6,400 people die each day worldwide from work-related accidents and diseases. That’s 2.34 million people per year. Actual figures may be even higher, because reporting systems are inadequate in many countries.

A group of women wait for someone to help them load goods onto their backs. The cargo women often suffer musculoskeletal disorders brought on by heavy lifting.
A group of women wait for someone to help them load goods onto their backs. The cargo women often suffer musculoskeletal disorders brought on by heavy lifting.

The risks faced by men in the workplace are better-known because, so far, the movement of safety and health at work has largely focused on male-dominated jobs. But today, women make up more than forty percent of the global workforce and many of them are working in the informal economy, where they frequently face unsafe working conditions, with low or irregular incomes and high job insecurity.

A man helps a woman load goods onto her back before crossing the border.
A man helps a woman load goods onto her back before crossing the border.

Safia was an exception among the porters. Most are illiterate, many are divorced, others have been abandoned by their husbands or, even more taboo in Moroccan culture, are single mothers.

Yamila, porter. Melilla, Spain.
Yamila, porter. Melilla, Spain.

These women work as porters, but the loads they carry are the property of Moroccan traders. If these goods were to pass officially through customs, in trucks or containers, the traders would have to pay a tariff. They use porters in order to avoid the fee, as it is legal to carry packages across the border as long as they are personal baggage. So the “cargo women” claim the packages as their own, avoiding tariff control.

A man attaches various goods to the abdomen of a woman using tape in Melilla, Spain. These women carry 80 kg packages on their shoulders and line their abdomens, arms and legs with products. The more goods transported during each pass through the border post, the more economic commission they receive.
A man attaches various goods to the abdomen of a woman using tape in Melilla, Spain. These women carry 80 kg packages on their shoulders and line their abdomens, arms and legs with products. The more goods transported during each pass through the border post, the more economic commission they receive.
The border fence in Melilla, separating Spain and Morocco.
The border fence in Melilla, separating Spain and Morocco.

It is still early in this December morning, and the dawn opens its eyes, yawning over the horizon. The Spanish side of the border is already swarming with Moroccan people while the clouds gather in flocks over the fence. The cold chills the bones. In the large queue before the gates, thousands of broken dreams wait patiently. Suddenly, a biker stops by and throws the load of tires he was carrying. Many rush over to these as if their lives depend on it and skillfully push the tires to the other side of the border. At the same time, a few white trucks reach the vast open space ahead of the border crossing points. They have not yet fully stopped when many Moroccan men and women throw themselves on their rear doors and open them forcefully. With elbows and feet they fight each other, climbing to the truck to get a package. There are more people than packages, so many of the women will leave frustrated. It looks like a free-for-all but in fact, most of these packages have been previously assigned to the men.

Wahiba, porter. Melilla, Spain.
Wahiba, porter. Melilla, Spain.

Both men and women cross the border with packages every day, but men typically take the lighter packages, rolling them on the ground, while it is left to the women to haul the heaviest loads.

Three women carry heavy goods on their backs toward the border between Spain and Morocco.
Three women carry heavy goods on their backs toward the border between Spain and Morocco.

This would be impossible to do if it were not for Antonio, the city bus driver. He takes the women closer to the storehouses and brings them back again, so the process is not as tiresome. Antonio knows them all by name and is much loved. His work is nearly a humanitarian labor and he goes as far as helping the women onto the bus with their heavy bales.

Malika, porter. Melilla, Spain.
Malika, porter. Melilla, Spain.

“What you see here is inhuman, but it happens every day,” says Antonio. “These women carry 300 tons of goods daily on their backs.”

They often suffer from musculoskeletal disorders, among other adverse health effects, because of the heavy burden. It is clear that the workload for the women is much greater than the load of men, who use mechanical means, or just simply push the load.

Three policemen protect the transit of women porters at the border. Neither the Spanish nor the Moroccan authorities have managed to legislate the irregular trade that occurs at this crossing.
Three policemen protect the transit of women porters at the border. Neither the Spanish nor the Moroccan authorities have managed to legislate the irregular trade that occurs at this crossing.

Women load their packages and tie them to their backs with simple rags of fabric or ropes, often to their shoulders and neck. They are ghosts that come and go, their faces cracked, weighed down by shoes, drinks, blankets, chips, diapers and a litany of other things tied to their waists, chests and thighs. Everything has been wrapped several times in duct tape. That’s why they look swollen, with bulky djellabas, walking as if ready to explode.

A man attaches shoes to a woman's waist with duct tape.
A man attaches shoes to a woman’s waist with duct tape.

Many cannot take it anymore and stumble down to the ground while on line. One can see in their eyes how anxiety is gaining ground on them, how it rushes through their veins until their skin is ready to burst open.

“If it wasn’t for us they would kill each other,” says one of the Spanish civil guards trying to restore order in the crowd. There has not been a stampede like the one that killed Safia for many months. Perhaps it is due to the system of roads leading to the border gates that the police have set up. The porters choose one way or another depending on the type of package that they carry. “The idea is that they keep on moving, because if they stop, the risk of a stampede is higher,” says Captain Rafael Martinez, who is responsible for border security. He adds, “Normal as this system may seem, it has taken a lot of effort and time to organize it.”

Men and women try to get goods as they come off trucks near the border.
Men and women try to get goods as they come off trucks near the border.

The captain has selected twenty porters, all of them men, each equipped with a yellow cap. They help officers to maintain order and translate for their fellow countrymen and women. In return they can carry their loads through the border without queuing. “Each one of them has a yellow cap and a number,” he adds. “The first day I gave the volunteers a yellow cap, as a way of differentiating them from the rest. But some people are cunning. The next day there were eighty yellow caps, ready to jump their places in the queue. It was totally impossible to know who was who. So I had to give them a number as well.”

Bouchra, porter. Melilla, Spain.
Bouchra, porter. Melilla, Spain.
A woman walks towards the border with a heavy pack, while a group of men pushes tires.
A woman walks towards the border with a heavy pack, while a group of men pushes tires.

No matter how had the police try to organize the crossing, the daily sight of these “cargo women” stumbling with their backs bent at a forty-five-degree angle, their mouths full of dry earth and their bodies close to collapse under the weight of the packages, still constitutes a macabre show, one that seems more typical of the Middle Ages than of a southern European border in the twenty-first century.

Fatima, porter. Melilla, Spain.
Fatima, porter. Melilla, Spain.

The Human Rights Association of Andalucía in Spain highlights the importance of having mechanisms in place to allow the transit of goods in a way that is not harmful to the health of these women. They say that there is a need to “change the physical structure of the transit areas and to allow the use of mechanical aids to carry the goods,” claiming that “these women are abused and exploited by the traders and neglected by the policy makers of both countries.” It should be noted that both Morocco and Spain have signed the Convention on Labour Inspection of 1947, pledging to improve inspection on safety and health at work.

It is already noon when the crossing of goods stops at the border. As on the previous day, I find a cargo woman who did not have time to carry her last package over to Morocco. She has been trapped on the Spanish side. She rests on a railing, exhausted as the sweat turns her hijab translucent. Soon, with her back bent, she walks with difficulty towards the turnstiles, back to the place where Safia’s eyes closed for the last time. The stench of sewers and trash, cardboard and plastic left over from the day follows her. From where I stand I can practically hear her back aching and her teeth grinding as she walks along the fence, along the deep wound that lacerates these lands. She stops for a second and says to me in a broken Spanish: “Early tomorrow … the same again.”

Two women carrying goods travel by bus to the border. The bus takes them closer to the storehouses and brings them back again, making the process less tiresome. Melilla. Spain.
Two women carrying goods travel by bus to the border. The bus takes them closer to the storehouses and brings them back again, making the process less tiresome. Melilla. Spain.