They start early in the morning and collect piles of salt with small shovels. Then they take the salt to the river to wash it clean before finally putting it on wooden boards to dry out any moisture left in the salt piles.
“Eventually contractors come from the city to buy the salt and they pack it in plastic bags,” says Dhi Qar local, Um Hamid. “The work is hard and tiresome,” she concedes, but it is the only way the 60-year-old can make a living and take care of her four grandchildren, whose mother is deceased. “And when I get back home and see the children waiting for me, I forget about my long days and the pain that the salt causes me and I take care of them.”
Raba Khalaf is in her 40s and says she makes about US$250 a month doing this work - but only if she works every day.
Um Hamid, or the mother of Hamid, lives west of the city of Nasiriyah, in the Sharif area. She’s been collecting salt from river banks and ponds around here for almost 15 years now; like many poorer Iraqis, she earns money collecting salt after water evaporates during the high summer temperatures.
It is hard to know how many salt collectors – known as malahat in Arabic - are doing this work because the numbers fluctuate. “When the winter ends and evaporation increases, there are more workers,” one of the salt collectors explains. “Then it starts to decrease again as the temperatures rise.”
Um Hamid makes about IQD10,000 (US$8.40) a day, which she contributes to her household. Her son Hamid can make about double that but only when he is lucky enough to get a day’s work in construction.
The salt that Um Hamid and other local women collect often ends up at one of Iraq’s industrial salt factories. There is one in Samawa, which lies between Baghdad and Basra, and the Basra provincial council has announced plans to reopen one of the country’s biggest, the Faw salt factory.
“The salt we collect is usually used for industrial purposes, rarely as table salt,” says Raba Khalaf another woman harvesting the salt. She’s in her 40s and says she makes around IQD300,000 (about US$250) a month doing this work, but only if she works every day. “Other women work selling the piles of salt that we bring,” she explains.
In summer Khalaf makes less because it is simply too hot to work outside as much. “Our work improves in the winter and autumn,” she told NIQASH.
Zahra Jalab has a different way of making money with the salt she collects: For more than 10 years she has been bringing it directly to fish sellers at the local market.
And Jalab actually likes her job. She says the money she earns allows she and her family to live with some dignity. “I have all the freedom I need,” she says. “It is just that recently I started to suffer from various skin diseases and the doctors told me I should stop working with salt.”
The salt collectors often get skin diseases or cracked skin because of long exposure to salty water.
Jalab has started using gloves so she can continue to work. Her children have also started helping her in the job but, as she says, she would prefer if they focused on their education so they can have a better future than in the salt business.