June 1, 2018 / 3:41 PM / 6 months ago

Morocco warns consumer boycott will put off foreign investment

RABAT (Reuters) - A Moroccan consumer boycott targeting major milk, mineral water and fuel brands, blamed for the layoff of hundreds of workers at a major dairy company, will deter foreign investment and cost jobs, the Moroccan government has warned.

“The continuation of the boycott will have repercussions on national and foreign investments and Morocco’s economy as a whole,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement issued late on Thursday.

Facebook pages with more than 2 million users have backed the campaign, launched on April 20 and which no political or other group has claimed but which aims to express the frustration many Moroccans feel about their circumstances.

The campaign takes aim at the largest dairy company, France’s Centrale-Danone, Afriquia fuel stations owned by the Akwa group of billionaire agriculture minister Aziz Akhanouch, and the Sidi Ali water brand - seen as symbols of an economy dominated by large groups linked to a business and political elite, or foreign brands.

“The goal of this boycott is to unite the Moroccan people and speak with one voice against expensive prices, poverty, unemployment, injustice, corruption and despotism,” one of the boycott pages on Facebook said.

The government said the boycott was hurting the agricultural sector and the families of the small farmers supplying milk, a group estimated at 600,000 people. It urged citizens to “understand the situation.”

Centrale Danone said on Tuesday it will reduce by 30 percent the amount of milk it collects from the 120,000 farmers who supply it, saying in an email to Reuters this was because of the boycott.

It also said it will lay off workers on short-term contracts, estimated by a government minister speaking on national television at numbering 1,000 people.

Unlike the milk company, fuel and water companies have not yet announced any losses due to the boycott and have declined to comment. However Les Eaux Minérales d’Oulmès, maker of Sidi Ali, has been bussing about 80 people a week to its spring in the Atlas mountains in an attempt to convince consumers its prices are fair, while calling on the government to lower taxes.

A series of protests over corruption and poverty which have erupted in Morocco this year and last have been the most intense since the 2011 unrest that prompted King Mohammed VI to devolve some of his powers to an elected parliament.

Officials have been promoting the kingdom as a stable investment destination, but the boycott and the recent protests could be helping undermine this narrative. From January to April, foreign direct investment into the country dropped to 6.77 billion dirhams ($712 million) from 8.16 billion in the same period last year, a decline of 17.1 percent.

Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi; Editing by Ulf Laessing and David Holmes

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