Ceuta (Spain) There are those who have been waiting since last evening and those who arrive at the first light of dawn: at six in the morning the row of coloured tunics waiting at the Tarajal II border is already several kilometers long. In rain or sunshine, thousands wait for hours along the road in order to enter Ceuta and receive kilos and kilos of merchandise to bring to Moroccan vendors. They are the porteadoras, North African women of all ages, who cross the border between Spain and Morocco in order to transport the goods from one continent to the other.
They walk in single file, each pulling an iron cart. After having passed the Moroccan border control and the Spanish one also, they go on to the commercial area of the small enclave, a vast area of warehouses that is literally taken by storm. “For 38 years I have crossed the border every day in order to transport goods on my back,” recounts a 65 year old porteadora from Tètouan. “It is the only work that I can do as I don’t have the means to find anything else,” she tells us before moving into line in order to receive the goods.
Far from the center of the city and from the stores of the most famous European brands, there exists another Ceuta. In front of the warehouses in this industrial area, the packages are already ready to be loaded onto the carts. Once they have been taken by the porteadora, they are marked so that they can be taken by the correct vendors waiting on the other side of the border. Like ants, the women run from one store to another, collecting more goods to place on their trolley. Many of them load up heavy packages also onto their backs, bent by years of fatigue. “Up until a little while ago, the only means of transport for merchandise was to tie them to your shoulders. Some porteadoras find themselves carrying packages that are more than 70 kilos on their backs. Now instead the new norms obligate you to use a cart,” explains BIlal Dadi, president of the industrial zone of Ceuta. “In this way the situation has improved. The trollies are heavy to push however, but we get less fatigued than we used to,” says a woman. “Before we risked suffocating ourselves with the weight of the packages that tightened the rope around our necks.” -adds another person-. Now everyone wants to do this work and they are stealing our vendors,” protests a woman.
An atypical trade
It is the door to Europe for sub-Saharan migrants, Ceuta represents also an important commercial junction for North Africa. It is there that Spain touches Morocco, the Tarajal II border allows for the movement of persons that are being exploited in order to provide transport . As explained by Antonio Borrego, who was formerly responsible for the security in the commerciale zone, in order to get their products directly into the nation from the European continent would cost Moroccan stores about five times as much as the passage from Ceuta.
Therefore the system of women is more economical for the arrival of goods from Europe to Africa. So while North African business owners reap the benefits of the system, the porteadoras are left frustrated and underpaid. “They earn around 200 Moroccan dirhams a day”, a woman explains to us. But from that small compensation (about 20 euros) they have to take off the costs of transport to the border, the rent of the trolley – that in the majority of cases is not the property of the workers -, some pay for “safety” and pay the agents in order to access the warehouses. At the end of the day, what is left for the porteadoras is equivalent to about 5/8 euros. In the past, the women went back to do more than one journey a day, so as to receive a larger wage. Now, because of security, at the entrance to the commercial site each one has to take a ticket which they return once they are leaving. In this way, they are able to keep numbers under control and it is more difficult to return and do more than one trip a day.
Who are the porteadoras?
“The majority of these women do not have forms of revenue other than what they derive from this form of work,” explains Nadia Nair, a member of the Feminist action unit. “It is the economic conditions which they find themselves in that pushes them towards porteadoras. Many of them have to continue supporting their families and in this manner manage to take care of their husband or children after having worked in the trading site,” she continues.
There aren’t just widows, housewives and mothers. The porteadoras are even university students. There’s Wafa, a 22 year old who lives in Maril with some other students from her course. “I began to do this work to help my family. They are against me doing this however, but I don’t want to be a burden, I want to contribute and pay for my studies,” she explains to us. Behind big glasses, which hides her slender figure. “I am trying to live like a normal girl of my age, but it isn’t easy,” she confesses while making her way to her room. Makeup, scattered clothes and dolls: it’s the room of a young girl who would like to live like her peers, but who two days in the week goes “the border to work as a porteadora together with her mother.” As Nadia Nair explained, in fact, there are often mothers who bring their children with them. “It’s a way to have more help and to not get so tired,” the woman affirms. “The rapport with my mother regarding work is protective, as is any between a mother and her daughter – Wafa continues-. She is looking to protect me during the busiest and most dangerous moments or when there are lots of heavy items to transport, she takes them in my place.”
Abuses and mistreatment
“The porteadoras are the weakest link in the chain. These women go through tragedy, hunger, rain, abuse. We can say that the porteadoras receive the worst of this situation,” agrees the former head of security. “The women denounce the different types of violence: verbal, physical, psychological, economic . explains Madia Nair -. Some girls have spoken even about sexual violence on both sides of the border.” As women without rights, the porteadoras are victims of mistreatment and abuses of power on the part of law enforcement and security men. “When arriving at the entrance the agents see the pretty and young girls and let them pass, often asking for something in return – recounts Wafa -. If, on the other hand, older women appear, they not only mistreat them, but even send them back. At the trade site there is always a lot of corruption.”
The border which divides Spain and Morocco is crossed by thousands of people every day: Spanish and Moroccan citizens, tourists, male and female porteadoras. The transportation of merchandise from one place to another is not just done by women, but also men of every age. “On Monday and Wednesdays the men work, on Tuesday and Thursday it’s our turn instead,” explains Mohamen, a 33 year old Moroccan. “I’ve done this work for three years to support my family – the young man continues -. I’m a mechanic, but I haven’t been able to find a job. I asked for help from the government, but I haven’t received a response. So I ended up working here.”
There are hundreds of other men just like him that take the industrial area by storm with their empty carts before crossing the border again loaded with goods. Passing us we see men with crutches, disabled and even blind who are pulling their trolley, being guided by a friend. “I have to do this type of work, I don’t have any other options. My parents are sick and I have to take care of them,” a boy barely an adult tells us. While the sun grows ever hotter, the roads between the vendors become even more crowded. “Yesterday (Monday) as I was entering into the commercial zone there was 3,900 women, today instead we have registered 4,382 men”, affirms the head of security.
So, kilos and kilos of merchandise at leaving Spain at low cost to enter Morocco where they are sold for a large profit. Every day, from 8am to 2pm, the trade area comes to life, transforming itself into an anthill in which everyone is running around screaming. In front of the warehouses the tension is often high: there is no lack of discussion, jostling and fighting between the porteadoras. Many women over the years have died from being crushed by the weight of the packages and from the fury of the crowd. The new security system now allows for the situation to be kept under control and to intervene in a timely manner if needed.
The thing which continues to cause issues is the loss of control regarding the contents of packages. Antonio Borrego explains:
Inside the boxes and bags could be anything. The porteadoras do not know the contents of the packages and so they do not know whether what they are transporting is legal or illegal
As a result, at Tarajal II almost any type of merchandise can pass through: from clothes to food, and from house products and personal hygiene items. And not just this. Controlling the inside of the boxes is impossible and this is to the fortune of traffickers. “Basically they illegally carry alcohol, whisky, beer, and stolen latest generation cell phones and sim cards. But there are also those who transport weapons,” reveals the former head of security. “In this box there is mortadella – explains a boy on the border. This is what is written on the package, but I am not sure. I can’t see what’s really inside.”
An illegal trade in broad daylight that exploits women and men without other possibilities. “Spain and Morocco have done almost nothing, looking the other way – Nadia Nair stated with anger -. There was never any response to the issue by either of the two parties nor from the European Union. This is a European border and Brusselles has a responsibility over what takes place here.”