At least 28 workers died in a flooded house that was being used as an illegal textile factory after heavy rains in the northern Moroccan city of Tangier on Monday, rekindling discussions about tightening labor standards in the North African nation.
The victims, most of them women, were trapped in the basement of the building in a residential neighborhood of the city, where the waters reached nearly 10 feet, the Moroccan interior ministry said in a statement. Firefighters and emergency workers rescued 10 people, but the total number of workers at the site wasn’t immediately known.
An unidentified woman told TanjaNews, a local site, that the torrent caught everyone by surprise. “There was nothing to worry about. We were working as usual,” she said. “And then because it was raining, as you can see…the water started entering, a little water, even my shoes didn’t get wet. But suddenly…” The woman didn’t finish her sentence.
The owner of the factory, whose identity hasn’t been revealed, was present at the time of the disaster and is currently under medical treatment, according to local news reports.
More than 130 people were employed in the illegal factory in inhuman conditions, according to labor advocates who are calling on authorities to hold those responsible accountable.
“This is an unacceptable tragedy where workers at the bottom of the supply chain yet again pay the price for cheap production,” Valter Sanches, general secretary of IndustriAll Global Union, said in a statement. “The garment industry must be made safe for the people who contribute to its enormous output. IndustriAll stands in solidarity with the victims and their families.”
Local news media noted that flooding is a common problem in Tangier, as is informal subcontracting under dangerous conditions. Faced with more demand than they can handle, factories in Morocco, particularly in Casablanca and Tangier, have increasingly turned to so-called “shadow factories” to cope with deadlines, they said. Staffed by as many as 40 people at a time, such unregulated facilities are predominantly found in residential neighborhoods.
Morocco clocks an average of 2,000 deaths each year due to work-related accidents—“one of the highest figures” in the Middle East and North Africa—according to the Economic, Social and Environmental Council.
Mohamed Khayi, a member of parliament from Tangier, is urging the government to investigate and ensure nothing like this happens again. “This is a very sad day for Tangier,” he said at a televised session at the Parliament. “We hope we will determine who is responsible. This is our collective responsibility.”
The International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, notes that Morocco’s garment sector, which employs 185,000 people, is of “strategic importance” to the country’s industrial development.
In 2018, garment and textile exports represented 15 percent of the Moroccan industrial gross domestic product, with a value of 38 billion Moroccan dirham ($4.3 million), according to the ministry of trade. The two biggest markets are Spain (61 percent of exports) and France (20 percent). Other destinations include Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.