Recently, ETI and Oxfam asked 200 women working in strawberry farms and packing houses in Northern Morocco to tell us a story. We said that the story could be about any topic, as long as it related to their work and dealt with something they thought should change.
ETI and Oxfam want to better understand the working environment in our Better Strawberries initiative, which was set up to help supermarkets and food retailers address labour issues occurring in their Moroccan supply chains.
Morocco is the world’s fifth largest exporter of strawberries. Women make up most of the workforce and Better Strawberries seeks to improve their pay and conditions of employment.
We asked each woman strawberry worker lots of questions about the story they told us. What is it about? Who was involved? Was it negative or positive? How did it make you feel? Did the people involved have the will and/or the power to change things?
This is very different to the traditional way of finding out what women workers want – and what they are experiencing at work. It’s called SenseMaker.
SenseMaker is an analytic tool that provides the ability to capture and understand daily lives through micro-narratives led by respondents themselves.
And when we used it, it produced very different answers from what would normally be expected.
SenseMaker, analysing women’s stories
Unlike a traditional questionnaire or survey, we did not decide in advance what topics women should talk about, or what aspects of those topics were the most important. And we allowed them to do the first layer of analysis (by asking them questions about the story). And then we went away and thought – honestly – about what they were telling us.
Surprisingly, many of the stories were about physical harm at work.
We already knew about the accidents women suffered on the overcrowded trucks that labour providers use to drive workers to and from villages. We didn’t know as much about the lost pay because of the frequency of such accidents, or how rarely women were helped with medical costs. They also told us about accidents at work, many of them involving injuries caused by falling pallets.
Such basic health and safety concerns simply shouldn’t be an issue for suppliers to a global supply chain.
There were other, more subtle, and in some ways more interesting findings.
Many of the women told us that although they took up their jobs because they needed the income to support their families, the issues now at the top of their minds were not so much financial, but the way their supervisors treated them. (From which it does not necessarily follow that they have as much income as they need.)
Workplace audits are notoriously limited in their ability to pick up on sensitive issues such as sexual harassment. Not so with SenseMaker. A large proportion of the stories were about verbal abuse and sexual harassment.
The most predominant feelings that their stories overall made the storytellers feel were fear, anger and sadness. Something else that doesn’t generally get picked up in audits.
Much of this reaffirmed what Julie Theroux-Seguin, Gender, Advocacy and Communication Manager at Oxfam in Morocco assumed. But there were also important new lessons for her.
Using the findings to extend the Better Strawberries programme
When talking to workers, Julie now pays more attention when ‘fear’ is mentioned and gives more thought to how this prevents women workers realising their rights… even when they are aware of those rights.
She was also surprised at the number of stories that emerged relating to sexual harassment and this strengthens her resolve to work on this issue in the next phase of the programme.
“What we were surprised about,” says Julie, “is not the fact that sexual harassment exists in the sector, but more that women workers have shared openly these stories. Normally, they do not talk about that since they feel ashamed.”
For me, the most surprising and interesting thing that they told us was that, contrary to what many might assume about women living in a traditional, rural community, many of their stories were about women who did what they wanted (rather than what they were told to do or what they thought others expected them to do).
This prompted Julie to remind us of the words of the black, feminist writer bell hooks:
“Women who are exploited and oppressed daily cannot afford to relinquish the belief that they exercise some measure of control, however relative, over their lives. They cannot afford to see themselves solely as ‘victims’ because their survival depends on continued exercise of whatever personal power they possess. It would be psychologically demoralizing for these women to bond with other women on the basis of shared victimization. They bond with other women on the basis of shared strengths and resources”
Global women’s strike
If these women – and the tens of thousands like them who form the living roots of global supply chains – were to bond with the women heeding the call for a Global Women’s Strike as part of today’s International Women’s Day, there would be no strawberries.
If women in all the global supply chains downed tools, there would be no tea or cocoa or wine or garments or jewellery… or any of the hundreds of thousands of other products we take for granted in our shops.
And if they downed tools at home, families would be unfed, unwashed, unclothed, uncomforted…
So if we really, really want to support the empowerment of women workers (and believe me, we do), we need to first start really listening to them instead of setting the agenda for them.
We need to recognise – and help them realise – their enormous power. And stop seeing them as victims.
 Feminist Theory from Margin to Centre: Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women bell hooks, 1984 https://solidarity-us.org/pdfs/cadreschool/hooks1.pdf