RABAT, Morocco - The death of a 14-year-old housemaid abused by her employer has sparked a public outcry in Morocco, giving ammunition to those demanding an end to the exploitation of child workers in the kingdom.
The girl, known as Fatima, died last March after suffering third-degree burns to her hands and face.
Her employer, a woman, was jailed for 20 years in January after being convicted of her death.
The trial became a symbol of the ordeal that some of the tens of thousands of child domestic workers have to endure in the north African nation, rights groups say.
Morocco's labour laws prohibit the employment of anyone under the age of 15 and require the authorisation of a guardian for anyone under 18.
Despite some improvements, the national planning commission says, however, there are still more than 90,000 children under 15 working in Morocco.
And Human Rights Watch said in January that girls as young as eight continued to work in private homes for up to 12 hours per day, and for as little as $11 (eight euros) per month.
The country has no laws protecting domestic workers - both children and adults - but parliament has tabled a bill aimed at regulating their working conditions.
The proposed law would give domestic workers contracts and a minimum wage of around US$100 (S$127) a month - half the national figure - as well as one day's holiday per week and an annual leave allowance.
Employers who flaunt these terms could face financial penalties of up to 5,000 dirhams (S$760).
Finalised in June, the bill "has been endorsed by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, the (state) National Council of Human Rights and we are totally open to all propositions" from parliament, Labour Minister Abdesslam Seddiki told AFP.
But the legislation has its critics too, and rights groups and opposition politicians have demanded the bill be expanded to offer better working conditions.
Human Rights Watch last November urged Moroccan lawmakers to revise the bill, saying it had "a unique opportunity to put an end to the exploitation of domestic workers by bringing the draft law in line with standards set by the International Labour Organisation."
"Morocco can become the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to ratify the domestic workers' treaty," HRW's Tamara Alrifai said in a letter to Seddiki.
'A girl's place is in school'
Khadija Rouissi, vice-president of the Moroccan parliament's lower house and member of the PAM opposition party, also thinks the bill does too little to protect underage domestic workers.
She condemned the proposed salary threshold, saying it was "lower than the minimum wage, on the pretext of encouraging employers to register their employees".
But she is also deeply concerned about the possibility raised by the bill of allowing youths aged between 15 and 18 working with "the permission of a guardian".
"The priority is banning minors from working. The place of a girl that age is in school," she said. "Human dignity is the red line."
Her party has proposed two bills in parliament that would impose a two-year jail term on those who employ minors.
The labour minister countered that Morocco has already made "great progress" in combatting the problem, saying the number of minors employed as domestic workers had dropped from "600,000 to less than 100,000" in a few years.
"That doesn't mean that everything is fine. We are going to do everything to fight this issue, the bill is only the beginning," Seddiki said.
In the absence of a clear law, "state action is limited to trials against the few exploiters who are arrested for murder or abuse," according to the civil society group the Collective for the Eradication of the Work of Child Maids.
But for Jamila, the neighbour of the woman convicted over the death of 14-year-old Fatima and who was a key witness in the trial, parents should simply keep their children at home, no matter how dire their financial situation.
"We are calling on all mothers who need money not to send their children to work in homes. The case of Fatima should be an example for all Moroccan families," she said.