The Cultural Representation of the Labour Contract in Morocco

The Cultural Representation of the Labour Contract in Morocco


[symple_box color=”blue” text_align=”left” width=”100%” float=”none”] Paul Willis mohammed maaroufDr. Paul Willis is a social scientist and cultural theorist. He is currently teaching at Beijing Normal University, China. Dr. Mohammed Maarouf is a Moroccan culturalist and critical ethnographer. He is a professor at Chouaib Doukkali University, El Jadida, Morocco.[/symple_box]

 El Jadida, Morocco—Moroccan popular Islamic practices, including pagan survivals, the continuing potency of maraboutic popular beliefs in the occult and magical understandings of fate, all provide fertile soil within which capitalist forms of exploitation can find easy groundings. The social link between the religious and economic domains is channeled through the transference of authoritarian and gift-exchange cultural schemas from religio-cultural contexts to those of capitalist employment relations, so furnishing acquiescent attitudes to authority and acceptance of the fateful, unchallenging distribution of power which are highly propitious for adaptation to the requirements of wage labour.

Unintentionally and unofficially, huge reservoirs of an “Islamic spirit of capitalism” are opened up. The provenance of this production of cheap and willing labour power owes nothing to or even is wholly divorced from sui generis capitalist cultural formations. In our case study example of Morocco, we show how complex religio-cultural forms “tolerate” rather than are transformed by modernity; there is something there before, prior, something continuing and separate that does the “tolerating” so that the direction of change is mapped not solely or even mainly by “modernity”. This does not stop capitalist interests, perhaps never understanding [including in the west] the conditions which make their operation possible, from benefiting from the arcane accommodations they find in the labyrinths of continuing popular religious traditions.

In the Moroccan case, we are identifying a much larger scale and socially momentous authoritarian cultural schema which reproduces authority and a particular response to authority where social actors acquiesce to, and see as legitimate, a particular formation of power. Both dominant and subordinate social groups follow the cultural schema of domination. The cultural foundations of the authoritarian schema are thus legitimized by ritual collective performances in society that have to do with sharifism, sultanism and maraboutism. These popular Islamic religio-cultural practices and beliefs provide ready-made cultural schemas for enacting and reproducing social relations of master-disciple/ saint-supplicant, which when applied to capitalist employment relations, despite some real and possible counter-tendencies and seeds of resistance, go a long way towards explaining the apparently submissive attitudes of most Moroccan workers.

What seems to be at stake in the practices of popular Islam is the attempt to influence life’s general course not so much work relations per se. Nevertheless the implications for the meaning of work and especially for acclimatization to capitalist wage labour are profound and have been overlooked. We argue in particular that the transferred authoritarian cultural schema discussed above as well as the various practices associated with what we have called magical emancipation help to facilitate an adaptation to capitalist wage labour and mollify its pains and discontents.

One of our main findings is that the two realms, work and magical thinking, are not generally experienced as overlapping, but for that, all the more profoundly influence each other not least in de-stressing the centrality of work relations to the basic meanings of life whilst encouraging, unexamined, a basically fatalistic attitude to the sufferings and oppressions of work.

It seems that Moroccan popular life is dominated by misfortune and impediment. In very important ways life is about fending off the misfortune hurled at individuals from the fateful and dangerous off-centre spinning of the capricious wheel of fortune. There are two basic and interconnected ways to hope for a better life or at least shelter from the clods thrown off from the swiveling gyrations of life’s unstable Ferris wheel. First is to look for “charity” by buckling to authority whether of the sultan, saint or shrif (descendant of the Prophet). The subordination seems inevitable but enacting it with heart or apparent heart may bring material benefits. Accepting lowly positions in the courts of powerful others, performing ritual obeisance to those whom fortune seems to better favour might produce in exchange some of their baraka rubbing off on you as well as some obligation for material protection.

In the case of employment relations, the boss may become the focus for this informal contract and so acquire some of the privileges, as well as obligations, of the sultan/shrif/saint. He becomes a distributing centre of charity. Among Muslims, charity is not a matter of courtesy. It is a religious injunction. God enjoined all believers to help each other and his Prophet appeared in different hadiths urging Muslims to be generous and kind to the poor. Historically, and to some extent at present, the religious obligation of charity has not only been implemented by individual Muslims but also by institutions.

The rising capitalistic economic relations of the twentieth and twenty first centuries have been incorporated, transgressed and refashioned to be grasped by Moroccans within their inherited religious and maraboutic framework through which they interpret the events of their daily life. The equivalences of charitable compulsion, the two way street between material support and moral debt, permeates all commercial exchange in Morocco. As supplicants expect the maraboutic distributing centre or saint/sultan to be charitable with them, feed them, protect them, or smooth their life course, workers (mechanics, taxi drivers, traders) expect not only their bosses but also their customers/clients to be charitable with them. Tipping workers in different sectors is part of the consumption contract between worker and client. Some may say: “thalla fina/ (be generous with us), t‘awn m‘ana (help us), or bghina naklu m‘ak trayf dyal l-khubz (we want to eat with you a crumb of bread).” After being tipped a worker may answer with Allah y-khlef (may God compensate you!), a phrase also used in the cultural context of entertainment as guests rise from the table. Beggars without exception use the expression when receiving alms from donors.

Main car dealers such as Renault or Peugeot are organized in a formal way and, as in the West, a customer must pay their bill to a white collar worker in the office but when collecting the car it is necessary to offer some money—thalla fi (be generous with)—to the mechanics. If you do not tip, next time the garage will be unaccountably busy or the job may be bungled or your car damaged for no apparent reason. If you do tip, then you are taken as a “son of the people” (weld nas) [a charismatic considerate person who dispenses charity] and next time services will be added without asking and your car will be cleaned and polished to perfection.

When brick layers and masons are working at your property it is also wise for the householder to tip. They will add work or strengthen walls and avoid rough and clumsy looking finishes—an ever present danger with construction work in Morocco. A day labourer mason explains that he likes to be tipped beyond the formal contract price his employer has obtained. He says that his income is very low, he needs help. Those people who help him deserve to be served well and sincerely: “huwa ithalla fia tta ana nthalla fih” (if he is generous with me, I will be generous with him). The gift may start with 20dh or even reach 100dh depending on the service done; for “foreigners” (work not included in the original contract) it may go to 200dh.

The worker and his client/employer interact within the cultural framework of gift exchange, which according to Hammoudi “allows for an increase in rank and subsequent modifications in status” (1999, 138). The gift exchange reproduces the marked unequal status of each participant, the worker under the obligation of service and obedience to the boss (the client being also a short-term contract employer), and the patronage and favor of the latter. Through the specific signs exchanged (money, clothes, food, words of welcome or blessing), the two parties display their consent to the terms of authority that confirm the inequality of their status.

The same regime holds true in the public sector especially when you need a signed document from an administrator. Matters are sheathed in the gift exchange cultural schema so that one hears only of reference to a hlawa (sweetener), gwimila (lit. saucepan; metaphor for food) or qhiwa (coffee), but if you do not participate in the social game you will not be served in a timely way and may fall victim to hindrance or extended delay. If you are stopped by the police for speeding, money “for coffee” is certainly cheaper than an official fine or penalty. 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 laborers 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 favorable 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 capital’s 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 labor 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.

[symple_box color=”blue” text_align=”left” width=”100%” float=”none”] Paul Willis mohammed maaroufDr. Paul Willis is a social scientist and cultural theorist. He is currently teaching at Beijing Normal University, China. Dr. Mohammed Maarouf is a Moroccan culturalist and critical ethnographer. He is a professor at Chouaib Doukkali University, El Jadida, Morocco..[/symple_box]