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Lonely Servitude: Child Domestic Labor in Morocco

[Human Rights Watch logo. Image from] [Human Rights Watch logo. Image from]

[The following report was issued by Human Rights Watch on 15 November 2012.]  

Lonely Servitude: Child Domestic Labor in Morocco

Executive Summary

Latifa L. was twelve years old when she began working as a domestic worker in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city. She said she was “really scared,” but a recruiter reassured her that her future employers “would be very kind” and would pay her well.

It turned out to be an empty promise.

Once in Casablanca—a five-hour bus journey from home—Latifa discovered that she was the only domestic worker for a family with four children. She said she toiled without a break from six in the morning until midnight,and was charged with cooking, laundry, cleaning floors, washing dishes, and caring for the children, including a two-year-old girl. She had no days off and was only allowed to eat twice daily—at 7 a.m. and at midnight after her work was done—she said. Latifa also said her employer frequently berated her and sometimes beat her, sometimes with a shoe when she broke something or when one of the children cried.

At first she did not tell her parents about the abuses because she felt obliged to help them financially, she told Human Rights Watch. But eventually she had enough. “I don’t mind working,” she said, “but to be beaten and not to have enough food, this is the hardest part of it.” In early 2012 she went to a public phone and asked her father if she could return home. He agreed, and with assistance from a nongovernmental organization (NGO), Latifa was able to return to school.

In Morocco, thousands of children—predominantly girls and some as young as eight—work in private homes as domestic workers. Known as petites bonnes, they typically come from poor, rural areas hoping for a better life in the city and the opportunity to help their family financially. Instead, they often encounter physical and verbal violence, isolation, and seven-days-a-week labor that begins at dawn and continues until late at night. They are poorly paid and almost none attend school.

In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a report “Inside the Home, Outside the Law: Abuse of Child Domestic Workers in Morocco.” In 2001, tens of thousands of girls under the age of fifteen—some 13,500 in the greater Casablanca area and up to eighty-six thousand nationwide according to the government and an independent research organization—worked as domestic workers in violation of Moroccan and international law that prohibit employing children under fifteen.  The report documented domestic work by girls as young as five years old, some of whom worked for as little as four (US) cents an hour, for ten or more hours per week, without rest breaks or days off. The girls we interviewed said that their employers frequently beat and verbally abused them, denied them education, and sometimes refused them adequate food or medical care.

This report follows up on our previous work by assessing what progress has been made in eliminating child domestic labor in Morocco since 2005 and what challenges remain. Although no nationwide surveys similar to the 2001 studies are currently available, our 2012 research—including interviews with twenty former child domestic workers in Casablanca and rural sending areas, as well as interviews with nongovernmental organizations, government officials, and other stakeholders—suggests that the number of children working as domestic workers has dropped since 2005 and that fewer girls are working at very young ages. Public education campaigns by the government, NGOs, and United Nations (UN) agencies, together with increased media attention, have raised public awareness regarding child domestic labor and the risks that girls face. “When I first went to Morocco ten years ago, no one wanted to talk about the issue,” an International Labour Organization (ILO) official said. “Now, child domestic labor is no longer a taboo subject.” Government efforts to increase school enrollment have shown notable success and helped reduce the number of children engaged in child labor.

But while the numbers of child domestic workers have declined, many children—overwhelmingly girls—still enter domestic work at much younger ages than the fifteen-year-old minimum age limit. Laws prohibiting the employment of children under fifteen are still not effectively enforced, and, according to the girls we interviewed, working conditions for those entering domestic work are often abusive and exploitative. Domestic workers generally —children and adults alike—are still excluded from Morocco’s Labor Code and as a result do not enjoy the rights afforded to other workers, including a minimum wage or limit to their hours of work. Some girls from poor, rural areas are lured into domestic work by deceptive intermediaries and feel pressure to help support their family, particularly, girls said, if a parent has become ill, disabled, or lacks regular income.

As a result, child domestic labor in Morocco remains a serious problem. Further efforts are needed to enforce the country’s legal prohibition against employing children under fifteen, protect girls who are legally old enough to work, and end the abuse and exploitation of young Moroccan girls in private homes.

Under-Age Employment

Moroccan and international law prohibit employing children under the age of fifteen. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Morocco ratified in 1993, prohibits economic exploitation and employing children in work that is likely to be hazardous, interfere with their education, or harm their health or development. The ILO Convention No 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which Morocco ratified in 2001, states that children under eighteen may not be employed in work that is likely to harm their health, safety, or morals. Prohibited labor includes work that exposes them to physical, psychological, or sexual abuse; forces them to work for long hours or during the night; or unreasonably confines them to employers’ premises.

Despite this, girls who enter domestic work in Morocco are sometimes much younger than fifteen. A 2010 survey of domestic workers under fifteen from 299 sending families by Institution Nationale de Solidarité avec les Femmes en Détresse (INSAF), the Casablanca-based NGO that works to prevent child domestic labor and to assist former child domestic workers, found that thirty-eight percent of the girls were between the ages of eight and twelve. Of the twenty former child domestic workers whom Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report, fifteen had started work at ages nine, ten, or eleven. All but four had been employed as domestic workers during some period between 2005 and 2012, the period of our inquiry. The youngest had begun working when she was eight years old.

Deceptive Intermediaries

Intermediaries—as in Latifa’s case—often approach girls’ families as recruiters, typically promising good working conditions and kind employers. Prospective employers typically pay intermediaries 200-500 Moroccan dirhams (US$22-57) for finding a domestic worker. As a result, intermediaries have a financial incentive not only to recruit domestic workers, but also to convince them to change employers periodically so they can collect additional fees.

The girls we interviewed said that intermediaries often told them little in advance about their working conditions or job responsibilities, which often include cooking and preparing meals, dishwashing, doing laundry, washing floors and carpets, shopping for the family, caring for young children, walking older children to and from school, preparing their lunches, and serving guests. Younger girls may initially not be expected to cook, but typically take on such responsibilities as they get older. Girls as young as eight years old said that they were expected to carry out most of the household responsibilities for families of up to eight members.

Abusive and Exploitative Working Conditions

Child domestic workers may work long hours for very low wages. On average, the girls Human Rights Watch interviewed earned 545 dirhams per month (approximately $61), far below the minimum monthly wage of 2,333 dirhams  (approximately $261) for Morocco’s industrial sector. While some girls earned as much as 750 dirhams per month ($84), one said she earned only 100 dirhams ($11), and several did not even know their wages, which are typically negotiated between the parents and the intermediary or prospective employer. In almost every case, the girl received no money directly; her wages were paid directly to her father or another family member.

In addition to the wages paid to a girl’s family, employers typically provide domestic workers with food and accommodation. Although it is difficult to estimate the monetary value of these “in-kind” payments, the evidence gathered for this report suggest that their value does not make up the gap between a typical domestic worker’s cash salary and the prevailing minimum wage. Some child domestic workers said they had private rooms, but others slept in their employer’s living room, in the kitchen, or in a closet, sometimes on a blanket on the floor. Some ate with their employer’s family and received adequate food, while others—like Samira who said she was only given olive oil and bread, or Latifa who said she was only allowed to eat early in the morning and once late at night after she finished her work—often went hungry.

For some child domestic workers, the workday begins early in the morning and does not end until late at night. Although Morocco’s Labor Code sets a limit of forty-four hours per week for most workers, the code does not address domestic workers, and therefore sets no limit for domestic work. Some interviewees had free afternoons or evenings, but others began working at 6 a.m. and continued until nearly midnight, with few breaks. One described pressure to work continuously, saying, “The woman [employer] wouldn’t let me sit. Even if I was finished with my tasks … if she saw me sitting, she would shout at me.” Of the twenty former child domestic workers interviewed, only eight said their employer gave them a weekly day of rest.  The others said they worked seven days a week, sometimes for up to two years.

Eleven of the twenty girls interviewed said their employers beat them, and fourteen of the twenty described verbal abuse. One girl who began working when she was nine years old said: “[My employer] used every bad word she could think of…. When I didn’t do something as she wanted, she started shouting at me and took me into a room and started beating me. This happened several times a week.” Girls said their employers beat them with their hands, belts, wooden sticks, shoes, and plastic pipes. 

The privacy of the home makes child domestic workers uniquely vulnerable to sexual harassment or rape by male household members. Aziza S. said she was only twelve when her employer’s twenty-two-year-old son tried to rape her. Amal K. also told us she experienced sexual violence by the son of her employer when she was fourteen. “The eldest son came into my room and did things to me,” she said. “He told me not to tell anyone…. I was afraid he would hurt me if I told.”

Domestic work severely limits a child’s ability to continue her education. Of the twenty former child domestic workers interviewed, only two said they had completed the third grade before beginning work. None were allowed to attend school while employed: Souad B., for example, said her employer had refused her request to attend school without giving a reason. A 2010 study by INSAF found that twenty-one percent of child domestic workers were still in school and worked during school holidays, but that forty-nine percent had dropped out of school to work and thirty percent had never attended at all.

Child domestic workers we interviewed said they experienced extreme isolation. Most worked in an unfamiliar city, far from family and friends. Some girls speak Tamazight, the Berber language spoken by many people in central Morocco and cannot easily communicate in Arabic, the language spoken by the majority of Moroccans. Many interviewees said they were not allowed outside their employer’s home and had limited contact with their families while employed. Some said they were allowed to call their families but that their employers monitored their phone conversations so that they could not speak freely.

Few of the twenty former child domestic workers interviewed had any idea where they could turn for help if they experienced violence, ill treatment, or exploitation. None said they had approached police directly or knew of a government entity that could offer them assistance. Without money and unfamiliar with their surroundings, they could not return home alone. Many described pressure to continue working even under abusive conditions to provide income for their families. 

Some eventually appealed to their families for permission to return home. Only two of the girls whom Human Rights Watch interviewed actively sought help outside their own family. One was Aziza S., who said she ran to a local bus stop after her employer’s son tried to rape her. She asked a bus driver for help, and he took her to a local police station. In another case, a girl who had been beaten by her employer with a belt confided in a local hairdresser, who referred her to a local NGO for help.


According to government statistics, Morocco has made significant progress in recent years in reducing overall rates of child labor and increasing the number of children who attend school. The number of children engaged in all forms of child labor dropped from 517,000 in 1999 to 123,000 in 2011, according to government surveys. The number of children working as domestic workers also appears to have declined, although no recent data is available to establish exact numbers. At the same time, the number of children completing primary school increased—from sixty-two to eighty-five percent between 2002 and 2010.

Government efforts to increase school enrollment and provide financial support for poor families that may feel pressure to send their children to work have boosted efforts to reduce child labor. One important initiative has been a cash allowance program that gives 60-140 dirhams ($7-16) to the families as a monthly stipend for each child attending school. According to the Ministry of Education, the program benefited 690,000 students in poor rural areas from 2011 to 2012, and an independent assessment found that it cut drop-out rates among recipients by sixty-eight percent over three years. The government has also provided book bags and other supplies to more than four million primary age students and expanded cafeteria meals by thirty-two percent from 2008 to 2012.

In five cities, the government has set up Child Protection Units to assist children who are victims of violence or mistreatment, which may include child domestic workers who have fled abusive employers. The Ministry of Employment and Professional Development has established a central Child Labor Unit and child labor focal points at forty-three inspectorates, and, together with ILO and UNICEF, has trained labor inspectors and other government officials to enforce child labor laws. In 2010, a government decree expanded the types of labor that are considered hazardous and thus prohibited for children under eighteen. The decree prohibits some tasks relevant to child domestic workers, but does not specifically prohibit children from performing domestic work.

Since 2006, the government has also been developing a draft law on domestic work that would for the first time formalize the sector and establish key rights (such as a weekly day of rest and annual leave) for domestic workers. The draft law would reinforce the existing legal prohibition on domestic work by children under fifteen and require the authorization of a parent or guardian for the employment of children between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. The proposed law requires written contracts for all domestic workers to be filed with the labor inspection office. In May, Minister of Employment and Professional Development Addelouehed Souhail told Human Rights Watch that adopting the law was a government priority in 2012. At the time of writing, however, the law had not yet been presented to parliament.

Moroccan NGOs have also conducted public education campaigns to discourage child domestic labor, including outreach to families in sending communities, and have created programs to assist girls who are employed below the legal age or victim to abuse or exploitation. NGOs also credit national media with helping to decrease child domestic labor by paying greater attention to the issue in recent years.

More Action Needed

Despite these positive steps, existing mechanisms to assist vulnerable children or address child labor are not sufficient to address the unique characteristics of child domestic labor. Labor inspectors, for example, may not access private households to identify child domestic workers. Furthermore, according to government-supplied information inspectors have imposed no fines against employers of child domestic workers. Child Protection Units, intended to assist children who are victim to violence or mistreatment, only operate in five cities. Child domestic workers we interviewed said they were unaware of services that the units might provide, and even the most active unit, in Casablanca, has only assisted a small number of child domestic workers. Criminal prosecutions against employers responsible for physical abuse of child domestic workers are still rare, although in 2012 a woman was sentenced to ten years in prison for the death of a ten-year-old domestic worker after severe beatings.

The government should establish more effective mechanisms to identify and remove girls who are employed below the minimum age or who are above the minimum age but victim to violence or exploitation. Continued public education is needed to inform both sending families and potential employers about the law and the risks of child domestic labor. According to INSAF’s 2010 study, for example, seventy-six percent of families in sending areas still were unaware of laws prohibiting the employment of children under age fifteen.

National legislation to regulate domestic work is needed to ensure that domestic workers of all ages—including girls above the minimum age of employment—enjoy basic labor rights and decent working conditions. The government should amend proposed domestic worker law to comply with the 2011 ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers and adopt it quickly.

Human Rights Watch urges Morocco’s government to adopt additional measures to effectively eliminate child domestic labor, taking into account the particular isolation and vulnerability of girls employed as domestic workers. These should include special mechanisms to identify girls subject to illegal, abusive, and exploitative child domestic labor, investigate these cases, and provide appropriate assistance, including shelter, family reunification, re-entry into school, and when appropriate, sanctions or criminal prosecution of employers.

Without such action, young girls will continue to be lured into exploitation and physical abuse in private homes, foregoing their right to an education, family contact, and the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. 

Key Recommendations

To the Moroccan Government

  • Strictly enforce fifteen as the minimum age for all employment;
  • Continue and expand public awareness campaigns regarding child domestic labor and relevant laws;
  • Create an effective system to identify and remove child domestic workers who are illegally employed or subject to abuse, provide them with medical and psychosocial assistance, and facilitate their entry into school;
  • Amend the proposed domestic worker law to ensure compliance with the 2011 ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, and present the law to Parliament for adoption; 
  • Ensure that all children under the age of fifteen enjoy their right to a free and compulsory basic education, and expand initiatives which are designed to increase school enrollment among girls who are vulnerable to child domestic labor;
  • Prosecute individuals under the Moroccan Criminal Code who are responsible for violence or other criminal offenses against child domestic workers.

Detailed recommendations can be found at the end of this report.

[Click here to download the full report.]

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