When Lucy met a representative of a Jordanian employment agency in the Philippines, the official promised her a sales position in Jordan with a salary increase after two months, allowing Lucy to send money back to her family overseas.
Lucy, a Filipino migrant worker in Amman, Jordan, requested that her full name not be used, fearing to speak on a sensitive topic. Yet when she arrived in Jordan, she quickly realized that her working environment was far different than promised. The agency placed her instead as a domestic worker earning a mere $150 monthly. Forced to work long hours, she was not even permitted to carry her own cell phone. Lucy’s experience is typical of the problems facing many migrant workers in Jordan, struggling amid miserable treatment by their employers – and sometimes by the Jordanian authorities themselves.
The U.S. State Department’s 2014 “Trafficking in Person Report” describes the abuses migrant workers face in Jordan, including forced labor and even physical abuse. While noting Jordan’s 2009 anti-trafficking law that prohibits all forms of labor trafficking, the enforcement of labor violations is often halfhearted. After employers were prosecuted for withholding their workers’ passports in September 2013, the report noted, “Some employers who were convicted were reportedly not required to return their passports back to their employees as part of their sentence.”
The program coordinator at the Jordanian Women’s Union, Najah al-Zoubi, who has worked intimately with abused migrant workers, said in an interview that her organization has seen an increase in the number of migrant women who have reported poor treatment from their employers. Abuses included physical violence, withholding wages and preventing the workers from leaving the house for extended periods of time. Some migrants said that they were forced to work seven days a week.
However, Zoubi explained that the problem extends also to the police itself. “When the women go to the police station to file a complaint, the police put them in a jail cell until they look in the case.” Given that the investigation can vary from a matter of days to weeks, Zoubi condemned this practice and exclaimed, “She is a victim and not a criminal. It is illogical.”
Detailing the difficulties migrant workers experience in Jordan, Linda al-Kalash, the executive director of the Tankeem Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights, explained in an interview how employers withheld passports from their workers, preventing them from renewing their labor permit. This meant they overstayed their visa and, therefore, faced high fines. “If they don’t have money to pay, it is difficult to leave. Sometime the police arrest them and keep them in what they call ‘administrative detention,’ but it is really jail,” she said.
Migrant workers arrive in Jordan from countries including Egypt, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. The Jordanian Department of Statistics notes that approximately 280,000 migrants have officially registered in Jordan, but the number of workers including undocumented migrants is probably much higher. While some serve as domestic workers, others labor in the agricultural and garment sectors.
“Here in the Interior Ministry we have a human rights department and a special department for Human Trafficking,” explained Saleh al-Kilani a ministry official. “Of course, we are not talking about a utopian country. There are some mistakes, some gaps between implementation and what we want.” Kilani emphasized that the government also needed to consider the rights of the employers, as some migrant workers ran away from their homes after employers invested thousands of dollars to bring them to Jordan.
Even if migrant workers successfully report a claim to the police, they face additional challenges in court. Finding quality translators is difficult. In many cases, the message from the judge does not reach migrant workers, who rarely speak Arabic fluently. Additionally, trials are often lengthy and Kalash noted that one trial even lasted over three years.
Zoubi explained how many migrant workers did not receive a fair trial or their salaries, which employers unlawfully withheld. “Sometimes the police end the migrant worker’s case by sending the worker back to her country,” she said.
When Lucy first arrived in Jordan, her treatment was harsh as she was completely isolated. “I was not allowed to leave the house for the first six months. My employer also did not even allow me to speak with other Filipinos.”
Lucy’s employer forced her to work seven days a week. As a religious Christian, she asked to pray at the local church, but her employer denied her request. Emphasizing the power imbalance between her and the employer, Lucy sighed and exclaimed, “She is your madam. Whatever she wants to do, you have to follow.”
Aaron Magid is a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Middle Eastern studies. He has written articles on Middle Eastern politics for The New Republic, Al-Monitor and The Daily Star. He tweets at @AaronMagid.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 25, 2014, on page 7.