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Jordanian NGOs Lead the Fight for Migrant Workers’ Rights

AMMAN, Feb 21 2012 (IPS) - As the number of domestic workers flooding into Jordan from Indonesia, Philippines and Sri Lanka reaches 140,000 annually, non-governmental organisations on the ground are working hard to protect migrant labourers’ rights and expose the terrible working conditions in the rich households that employ them.

“Occurring out of sight and individually, abuses against domestic workers are many,” Luna Sabbah, director of the renowned Adaleh centre for human rights, asserted.

The majority of these domestic workers are women. Over the last thirty years, their presence in the country has literally skyrocketed: in 1984, there were only 8,000 female migrant domestic workers in Amman; today they are more than 10 times that number.

This evolution can be partially explained by a growing disinterest among Jordanian women to engage in domestic labour and, from employers’ perspectives, the eagerness of many households to acquire a cheap workforce that can be exploited at will.

Often deprived of basic freedoms and contact with the external world, migrant women workers find themselves in an extremely vulnerable situation, especially since they do not speak the local language and are basically bound to their employers, who often force the women to sign “labour contracts” they do not understand.

Impossibility of returning home

Thanks to the relentless work of NGOs like the Adaleh centre and Tamkeen, an organisation that archives workers’ complaints and labour violations, details of these abusive working arrangements are finally coming to light.

“The employers don’t feel worried,” Tamkeen’s director Linda Al Kalash, who won the French Republic’s human rights prize back in 2011, told IPS.

“They exploit and perpetrate every kind of violation against their domestic workers: total or partial deprivation of wages, restriction of freedoms, interminable hours, no days off, insults, even physical and sexual abuses,” Al Kalash explained.

She said that the number of workers’ complaints has already reached 500 this year.

“Complaints are generally settled in a tribunal,” she told IPS, adding that the seizure of workers’ passports is a common practice that requires legal deliberation.

However, simply lodging complaints does not always yield results for the plaintiff. First, the violations need to be recognised by the ministry of employment, which often decides to ignore them.

Women are also routinely mistreated by public security forces, who disregard the legal rights of foreign domestic workers.

“There have always been so many rights for women in Jordan, but only on paper,” Sabbah noted.

Indeed, Jordan ratified international conventions against forced labour and traffic in persons in 2009, while female domestic workers were integrated into the Jordanian Labour Code back in 2008.

However, the country is yet to ratify the comprehensive International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Meanwhile domestic workers see the window of opportunity for preserving their rights closing fast.

When a domestic worker escapes the house where she works, she has nowhere to go and finds herself shackled by the accumulation of fees for each day she doesn’t work, especially if her legal work permit has expired and she is living on the mercy of her employer.

Unable to pay the fees, these women often end up in detention.

“At the moment, 35 domestic workers have been in prison for over a year because they accumulated astronomical fines and no one can pay their return journey ticket,” Sabbah said with a touch of bitterness.

NGOs playing a crucial role

The Adaleh centre and Tamkeen work with all the parties involved in the crisis: ministries, public security forces, prison personnel and broker agencies, among others.

In 2010, Adaleh gathered the necessary funds to send eight detained workers back to their home countries and managed to shut down three broker agencies. The NGO also forced many employers to pay withheld wages.

That same year, Tamkeen won authorisation from the ministry of employment for migrant workers to open bank accounts and enact basic regulations on the treatment of undocumented workers.

One of the most comprehensive projects involves the reinforcement of the existing legal framework on the migrant domestic workforce. To this end, Adaleh formed a united front of legal workers to assist migrant workers in their fight for rights.

Tamkeen also bolstered itself with competent lawyers to defend the implementation of international conventions in Jordanian tribunals.

“We try to force those who should execute the laws to actually do (their duty), by publishing statements, by testifying about violations in the media, by suing perpetrators before tribunals. Sometimes all it takes is a simple phone call to ensure that the proper authorities implement the law,” Al Kalash revealed.

The campaign for domestic workers’ rights also includes creating public consciousness around the issue. Efforts are currently underway to educate the police on how to deal with real or potential victims of abuse; influence public opinion on the issue; build trust between NGOs and the prison system and work closely with broker agencies’ managers and with embassies’ personnel.

According to Al Kalash, the greatest challenge will be to change society’s “contemptuous look” towards migrants.

Jordanian women in particular have an extremely negative attitude toward female migrants. Al Kalash told IPS that domestic workers often fall victim to Jordanian women, who are likely lashing out against years of repression and male dominance by attacking the only people in society who are more vulnerable than they.



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