100 kilos of onions: The back-breaking work of Dakar’s porters

A porter carries wares. (Screengrab of a video filmed by our Observer Camara Mahmoud.)
A porter carries wares. (Screengrab of a video filmed by our Observer Camara Mahmoud.)

The young porters who work in the main produce market in Dakar, Senegal, carry roughly more than three tons on their shoulders every day. The porters make a living selling their physical strength to fruit and vegetable vendors. In one working day, they load and unload close to 150 bags, each weighing 25 kilos. One of our Observers spoke to us about their working conditions.

In Thiaroye, one of the biggest produce markets in Dakar, porters are a common sight. Most of these men come from neighbouring countries, especially Guinea, and they make their living doing this back-breaking work. These men form groups of five or six people and wait for the trucks carrying fruit and vegetables to pull into the market. The men then offer to load and unload the produce for a fixed fee. It’s a simple system. The more bags they carry, the more they are paid.

Camara Mahmoud moved from Guinea to Dakar about six months ago. He works as a nurse in the health centre in Thiaroye, which is next to the market. One day, he dropped by the market to say hello to a friend of his, who works as a porter. Astonished by the weight that he saw them carrying, he got out his phone and filmed the porters. These men spend their days going back and forth between the trucks and the warehouses, carrying bags of more than 100 kilos of onions slung over their necks and their shoulders.

This worker carries five 25-kilo bags through Thiaroye market to load into a waiting truck. (Video by Camara Mahmoud)

"He told me that his entire body hurts”

Camara decided to send the video to the Observers team.

I really felt for the porters when I saw the weight that they carry. They must really suffer. I asked them why they did this work but they said that they didn’t have another choice and that they were forced to do this work in order to be able to eat.

Many of them come to the health centre where I work. A lot of them suffer from back pain. The man who you see carrying onions in the video told me that his entire body hurts.

The workers tend to negotiate how much they will be paid with the truck driver after it pulls into the market. However, it is normally around 25 CFA francs for one bag of onions. If the workers carry on average 150 bags, each weighing 25 kilos, then they can make about 3,500 CFA francs per day. In Senegal, the average monthly salary is about 96,000 CFA francs, which averages out to about 4,800 CFA francs per day. Our team checked these numbers with our Observers who live in Dakar. They agreed that this was the going rate for this back-breaking work.

They don’t make enough to pay for treatment for the injuries caused by this dangerous labour.

These men are day labourers so they have no contract or any medical coverage. The man in my video said that he couldn’t afford medicine for his aches and pains but that he drank a lot of orange juice, which he thought helped.

Even though all of the vendors depend on the porters, there is no regulation of this industry, says Khadim Ndiaye, the head of the department of commerce in Pikine, the body that is meant to oversee activity within the Thiaroye market. Ndiaye told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that “the working conditions are discussed between the vendors and the labourers”.

This article was written by Pierre Hamdi (@PierreHamdi).