Wednesday 22 October 2014

Bitter Fruit: where Donegal's jobs went

Published 16/01/1999 | 00:11

Nobody in Donegal could live on the wages being paid to the Fruit of the Loom workers in Morocco. But for the workers there who have taken the 770 jobs lost in Donegal before Christmas, the wages are a fortune. The factory is surrounded by military style security. Mention that you're from Ireland and you're not welcome. Chris Lowry reports from Rabat

Nobody in Donegal could live on the wages being paid to the Fruit of the Loom workers in Morocco. But for the workers there who have taken the 770 jobs lost in Donegal before Christmas, the wages are a fortune. The factory is surrounded by military style security. Mention that you're from Ireland and you're not welcome. Chris Lowry reports from Rabat

Ramadan or no Ramadan, the security guard outside the Fruit of the Loom plant in Rabat wasn't showing much goodwill. But it wasn't his fault. He clearly had instructions from on high: don't let Irish people anywhere near the factory.

What was particularly strange about this behaviour was that he had no reason to suspect we were Irish. Ola Sletten, our Norwegian photographer and interpreter, was doing all the talking. As far the guard was concerned, we were two Scandinavian journalists who were merely interested in new Moroccan businesses.

And yet, he harped on about the Irish as if he had some sort of obsession. Behind the locked gates and the sign saying `Interdit au Public' (forbidden to the public) French is the lingua franca in Morocco) I could hear him refer, at least five times, to ``les Irlandais''.

When Ola was eventually given a phone at the gate to speak to the director's personal assistant, it was the same story: ``Les Irlandais ne doivent pas entrer'' (``the Irish aren't allowed in''). After he patiently inquired what relevance that had to him as a Norwegian, she finally said that he might be allowed inside in one or two months.

The reason for the paranoia is plain. Although, as we shall see, Fruit of the Loom treats its Moroccan workers very fairly, the fact is that 770 jobs were lost from its Donegal operation just before Christmas and effectively transferred here, to a low-wage economy in North Africa.

There had been concern in Ireland about the Rabat operation ever since a tiny newspaper article in September 1994 announced that: ``Fruit of the Loom International, the Irish arm of the US clothing manufacturer, is to establish a subsidiary in Morocco.'' Despite the protestations of the then Chief Executive William McCarter that, ``the move will have no effect on Fruit of the Loom's expansion plans for Ireland,'' Donegal workers were never quite able to shake the fear that their jobs might one day be exported to the new, cheaper site.

Rabat, Morocco's capital is as far away from Donegal culturally as geographically. A bustling town whose population is estimated at 750,000, it wakes at 5.30am to the wailing of the local Mueddin, whose deafening (and presumably amplified) voice echoes over the ramshackle square miles of low-rise white buildings. Shortly before dawn, the cacophanous din of thousands of car horns rises from the traffic chaos below, continuing in an unbroken shriek until long after nightfall.

Since double glazing is too expensive (not to mention superfluous) for most Moroccan buildings, the racket created by the Mueddin and the traffic is inescapable and the only solution is to get up much earlier than you might otherwise choose to. Fortunately, the weather that greets you at this time of year is extremely pleasant, an almost invariably sunny 20c, that is warm enough for Westerners to wander around in t-shirts but cool enough to allow you to keep moving.

The Fruit of the Loom plant is a 20 minute car journey from Rabat city centre to the nearby town/suburb of Salé. Ola and I took a taxi, which is generally the best way to get from A to B in Morocco. The driver saw us coming, but we saw him see us coming and, after initially attempting to charge us fully ten times what the journey was worth, we managed to bargain him down to an acceptable price. We were still handing over three times what a Moroccan would pay, but it was enough to ensure the driver's loyalty, which turned out to be very important.

The factory is located on what might be described as waste ground plastic bottles, paint tins, shards of glass and rusted metal from long-dead cars are strewn around in the gravel and dust but for the fact that people live here.

In a field behind the factory walls, a young boy herds skinny, brown sheep among the litter and sparse grass. Across the road and along the train track stands the Bidonville a shanty town. The dwellings here are fashioned out of stones, corrugated iron and old rugs; some are so over-run by weeds that they look like trees in full bloom. Directly opposite the factory stands the most delapidated house I've ever seen, a crumbling pile of dark-grey masonry whose owners nonetheless seem to have amassed enough money for a satellite dish.

The factory, however, is very different. Seen from the gate which was as close as the suspicious guard would let us, indeed it seemed to him too close for comfort Fruit of the Loom's premises looks shiny and new. The famous logo dominates the view for miles around, and the factory buildings are the only structures in the area which have any kind of recognisable geometric shape. The contrast with the shanty town across the road could not be greater.

Ironically, under the circumstances, the Irish tricolour flutters prominently in front of the factory's main building, beside its red Moroccan counterpart. Clearly, the Irish influence is strong if only in symbolic terms.

Both the guard and the director's assistant told us that it was the ``Irish bosses'' who had decreed that no-one from Ireland should visit the premises. Given that the decisions that matter in Fruit of the Loom seem to be taken outside Ireland as recent events have made clear one wonders how true it is that ``Irish bosses'' were responsible for our exclusion. Of course, it is perfectly possible that those remaining in power in the Irish Fruit of the Loom are highly sensitive to media attention.

The upshot of the hostility we encountered, which at one point was so acute that Ola feared the guards would come out of the factory and take his camera, was that we took cover in the taxi. The driver patiently waited with us until 2pm the changing of the shifts at the factory. Six buses pulled into the driveway and disgorged hundreds of young, mainly female workers, some in traditional Islamic dress, others in surprisingly trendy Western gear.

After a few minutes, hundreds more workers came out and boarded the buses, ready to be taken to Salé and Rabat. But the buses sat in the driveway for almost an hour, until we began to suspect that they were waiting for us to leave. One beady-eyed guard had spotted that we were in the taxi and may have judged correctly that we planned to follow the buses and try and to talk to the workers.

Sure enough, when we drove off and then pulled over at a point half a mile away where we couldn't be seen the buses promptly left the front of the factory. We thought they wouldn't pass us, so we drove off again and there followed a bizarre reverse car chase in which we drove several hundred yards ahead of the buses, attempting to second-guess which turns they would make. At one point, it appeared they had spotted us and slowed almost to a halt. Then they took a turn we hadn't anticipated and lost us.

But 10 minutes later, our driver showing considerable skill and local knowledge tracked down one of the buses and we saw several young women disembark. I followed one group of three women, and, after considerable nervousness on their part, managed to persuade one of them to talk to me.

However uncomfortable she may have been, I felt worse the area was run down and threatening to an extent that would make the worst slums of Dublin look genuinely prosperous.

In fact, the threat was all in my mind. The locals were remarkably friendly and one even volunteered to translate.

Sara (her name has been changed) said she worked on the production line at the factory making t-shirts. Aged just 19, her job in Fruit of the Loom means that she can support her family of ten. Neither of her parents has steady work, which means that Sara's weekly wage of 500 Dirhams (£35) is the main source of income in the household. (In comparison the average wage in Fruit of the Loom in Donegal for a 40-hour week was £200).

Sara's £35 a week is a substantial income by Moroccan standards, considerably more than the average wage. She starts her eight hour day at 6am and receives an hour for lunch break and holidays of six week per year far more generous than the norm.

The management at the factory, in their acute defensiveness, refused to tell us anything at all about the operation; they wouldn't even disclose the number of people who work there. But Sara estimates that there are now one thousand people employed in the plant, 500 on each ``equipe'' or shift (the second shift is between 2 and 10pm). If this is correct and Sara's situation is typical which it seems to be then the wages from Fruit of the Loom may be providing for as many as 10,000 people in an area of high unemployment and obvious poverty. On top of that, the factory indirectly keeps hundreds, perhaps thousands, more workers in business.

Across the road from Sara's house which is barely big enough for a young couple, let alone a family with 8 children our taxi-driver waited patiently, ready to whisk us to safety if the locals took a shine to Ola's camera or our wallets. But despite the grinding poverty, there was no hint of aggression.

As we watched, people filed into the local mosque, celebrating the final days of Ramadan in the Muslim year of 1419. The children played football in the red sand that pervades the entire area and gives the slums of Salé an eerie, Martian look.

As the Mueddin's evening cries rang out, one of the kids took great delight in dribbling around me with the ball before scoring a goal against the cream-coloured walls of Sara's house.

It is true that Sara's salary wouldn't go far if she were to try and buy some of the designer goods on Avenue Mohammed V, Rabat's main thoroughfare, a Sony Trinitron, for example, would set her back 14000dh, or seven months wages. Even a pair of Western shoes would take a huge chunk out of her salary Kickers, for instance, cost up to 700dh.

True also that her wage packet is tiny compared to what Fruit of the Loom were paying workers in Donegal. But that, as most people in the West reluctantly accept, is how the free movement of capital works. Fruit of the Loom has exploited this ruthlessly, but the company cannot be accused of setting up a sweatshop in the Third World.

The fact is that, by local standards, the workers at Fruit of the Loom in Morocco are well paid. They work an eight hour shift. And they get six weeks holidays a year. By North African standards that's extremely good.

By our standards, of course, the level of wages there is pathetic. No one here could live on £35 a week, whether in Dublin or Donegal, where the Irish jobs were lost.

It's the world of global economics. It's a heartless, even cruel world. But in the world of multi-national companies, there's no escape from these harsh realities.

The final irony, of course, is that it was workers from Fruit of the Loom in Donegal who were sent out to Rabat a few years ago to help set up the factory and train local workers.

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