Motorbikes and Masters degrees: the informal economy in Morocco

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Motorbike sales are booming in Morocco– as is underemployment and the informal economy (Photo by Karis Hustad)

I wrote this as a weekly assignment for one of my journalism courses during my time in Morocco. Our professor, journalist extraordinaire Mary Stucky, told us to go out and talk with Moroccans employed in the informal economy. Mind you, this was during the second week we arrived in Morocco and with essentially no language training nor grasp of how exactly the country works. Intimidating? Yes. But sometimes you need someone to kick you in the rear end to get you out of your comfort zone to find out what’s going on in the world. The result? Conversations with motorbike salesmen, my first time covering a protest and a little peek into how the informal economy functions (and factors into much larger economic issues) in Morocco.

RABAT— Motorbike sales and a degree in literature don’t usually share the same resume, but for Houcine Hassoune, 31, that is the case.

Hassoune graduated from Mohammed V University six years ago with a bachelor’s degree in literature, and began to work in a used motorbike and bicycle lot, a job passed down to him by his father. Though it isn’t what he studied, he said the motorbike business, which he shares with his two brothers, is profitable enough to support his family.

With the lot’s location overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Hassoune pointed out that the profit isn’t the only benefit to working flexible hours at the lot instead of an office.

A cool breeze floated over his shoulder from the vast water beyond, while the sun sank low in the sky. Hassoune adjusted his jovial straw hat.

“I am free,” he said.

Free, in this case however, has multiple meanings. Houssoune is free from taxes: his motorbike business functions as a part of the informal economy in Morocco. People employed in this industry get money under the table, bypassing many laws and regulations. But often the earnings are lower and the work is lucrative. Hassoune said he wouldn’t pass the business to his kids. Instead, he wants them to be a professor of English in Morocco or England.  Why? The motorbike business is also unfortunately free of stability.

“Professors are good, [you are paid] more money,” he said. “I don’t have security here. Today I have money, but if I don’t sell the motorcycle, I don’t have the money.”

The informal economy in Morocco, which can range from hawking water filters on a blanket to pushing a sugarcane juice cart to selling bikes, used to be solely for those without higher education. But with youth unemployment rate hovering around 50 percent, and major flaws in the public and private sectors, in young college graduates in Morocco find they don’t have many other options.

Hassoune said the most sought-after jobs in Morocco are in the public sector, including education and internal affairs. These jobs offer benefits and are generally very secure. However, according to an Arab Human Development Report in 2010, public sector jobs only account for 10 percent of the employment in Morocco, and often the only way to get a job is to be connected with someone already in the public sector.

“It is very difficult here to have a public job,” Hassoune said. “Because you must have someone who works in the public sector help you.”

The private sector doesn’t offer much more. Private sector jobs pay on average 23 percent less than public sector jobs, according to a 2006 Applied Econometrics and International Development study. That number drops to 42 percent less pay for university graduates.

When the public and private sector fail, and people don’t have a used motorbike business to fall back on, where do they go?

To the streets—in protest and in the informal economy.

About two miles inland from the beachside motorbike lot on a warm Tuesday in September 2012, approximately 200 protestors marched down Mohammed V Avenue in front of the Moroccan national parliament building, chanting about their right to jobs. The protestors were students who have masters and doctorate degrees, and believed they had a right to a government job, based on their education.

One of these protestors was Kamal Fadili, 28. He has a master’s degree in translation from King Fahd School of Translation in Tangier, and was unemployed.  Just having left the throng of protestors, he breathlessly explained that the problem was money.

“I have tried,” he said. “I am not the only one, most of us have tried. You can find jobs, the problem is the pay. Just to give you a perspective: most of my friends who have M.A. in translation have a payroll of $200 to $250 dollars per month.”

To make money he does freelance translations, he said, nervously looking over his shoulder as protesters sprinted away from the police who had just begun to intervene. But he said he is one of the lucky ones.

“There are some cases of M.A. and PhD who sell plastic jewelry on the streets,” he said.

He threw up his hands. This, he said, is the problem.

“This is what infuriates us. The people who are getting the job are sons and daughters of influential people. If you know someone, you will get a job. If you don’t know someone, you have the streets to get a job.”

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