Some of the most essential workers are also among the most overlooked—the women and men who plant, harvest and transport our fruits and vegetables, ensuring our tables are full every day, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Worldwide, they also are among workers with the fewest legal protections and rights on the job. On the latest Solidarity Center Podcast, Hamada Abu Nijmeh describes how agricultural workers in Jordan collectively campaigned for—and won—a landmark law that will bring them safer jobs, overtime pay, 14 days annual paid leave and 14 days paid sick leave.
The workers, the majority of whom are women, also won 10 weeks paid maternity leave. Significantly, the legislation also covers migrant agricultural workers, who frequently are not protected by countries’ labor laws.
Abu Nijmeh is director of the Jordan-based Workers’ House for Studies, and with the Agricultural Workers Union, led the campaign for this first-ever legislation.
“So I can proudly say that it is through the efforts of many that we have been able to achieve this landmark achievement,” says Abu Nijmeh. “I can say without a doubt that this is a historic achievement because since Jordan was founded, agricultural workers have not been included in the labor law until now.”
Agricultural workers won this victory despite the legally limited ability of all workers to form unions in Jordan, says Abu Nijmeh. He tells Solidarity Center Podcast host Shawna Bader-Blau that the union’s next steps include winning the fundamental right for workers to freely form unions and bargain collectively.
“The trade union of agricultural workers tried to register [with the government] and, of course, they have been denied and they took it to court,” he says. “The best way to protect the agriculture sector and any future trade union in the agricultural sector is to fix the problem with the entire system.”
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Agricultural workers in Jordan for the first time have fundamental protections on the job, including guarantees for safe and decent working conditions, following a two-year campaign by the Agricultural Workers Union in Jordan and its allies that resulted in passage of a historic regulation covering the agricultural sector.
“This is quite a landmark in Jordan. It’s the first time this type of legislation has passed,” says Hamada Abu Nijmeh, director of the Jordan-based Workers’ House for Studies. Under the regulation, any provision not mentioned falls under purview of national labor code.
The law applies to all workplaces that employ more than three agricultural workers, who now will receive 14 days annual paid leave and 14 days paid sick leave (or more, in cases of serious illness). Women are guaranteed 10 weeks paid maternity leave and there are now first-ever provisions for overtime pay. Significantly, the legislation also covers migrant agricultural workers, who frequently are not protected by countries’ labor laws.
COVID-19 Makes Visible Essential Workers
Agricultural workers in Jordan were key to developing the new labor regulation improving wages and working conditions.
Prior to passage of the regulation this month, there were no mandated safety inspections of farming facilities, leaving workers vulnerable to dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, such as exposure to poisonous pesticides. Agricultural workers, most of whom do not have formal labor contracts and are part of the country’s vast informal economy, were paid extremely low wages with no health insurance or other social protections. Working long hours, they were not guaranteed a day off during the week and not paid overtime. They were denied the freedom to form unions—the Agricultural Workers Union is not recognized by the government. Migrant workers still do not have the right to form unions under the new law.
Although a labor law covering agricultural workers was passed in 2008, the government never moved to put it in place, says Mithqal Zinati, union president. But as the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted essential workers like those who literally feed the world, the government became more receptive to the union’s campaign to ensure decent working conditions in the vineyards and fields.
“The agricultural sector is the food basket, the key source of stability that needs to be given priority to contribute to the stability of Jordanian state itself,” says Abu Nijmeh. “Part and parcel of that is to provide protection of workers. We told [the government] if you want to see this sector successful, you need to provide its protection.”
Abu Nijmeh and Zinati spoke with the Solidarity Center through interpreters.
Danger on the Job and Getting to Work
For Jordan’s 210,000 agricultural workers, more than half of whom are women, the day begins before dawn as they rush to meet the crowded trucks that transport them to the fields in the fertile Jordan Valley. Picking cucumbers, melons and okra in summer, citrus fruits in winter, the workers also weed fields, install water pipes and spray crops. They often are denied breaks, even as they work in the burning sun and harsh cold, and women have no access to toilets, leaving many with serious kidney issues and other illnesses, says Zinati. Just this week, a worker died of sun stroke in the fields, Zinati says.
Before they even arrive at the farms, women are subject to unsafe conditions on the packed vehicles they must use to get to work. Some 86 percent say they were involved in an accident on the commute, and 41percent say they are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence during the journey, according to a study by SADAQA, a nonprofit organization championing the rights of women in Jordan. SADAQA produced the study, “Women Agricultural Workers in the Jordan Valley: Conditions of Work and Commuting Experiences and Challenges,” with Solidarity Center support.
Twenty or more workers are packed in a van licensed for five passengers, sitting on top of each other and in the luggage compartment, says Zinati. The vans take back roads to avoid police because they are not licensed, or licensed only to transport crops and other goods, and workers frequently suffer injuries as the overcrowded vehicles crash on the rough roads. Because most women work in shifts, they must commute two times per day, says Randa Naffa, SADAQA co-founder, speaking through a translator.
Together with the Solidarity Center, SADAQA produced a video on the outcome of the study documenting the hazards women face commuting to the fields. SADAQA, part of the Alliance to End Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, is using the video to campaign for regulations covering agricultural transport. The alliance is pushing the government to ratify International Labor Organization Convention 190 on ending gender-based violence and harassment at work. Convention 190 makes clear that employers and governments must take measures to ensure workers are safe on their work commute as well as in the physical workspace.
Worker Involvement Key to New Regulation
Agricultural workers were key to designing the new regulation. Beginning in 2019, leaders at the union and the Workers’ House met with workers on the farms to determine their needs and priorities. With worker input forming the basis of the draft regulation, campaign leaders applied labor regulations and human rights provisions from international standards and legislation from other countries to create a model regulation. The Workers’ House and the Solidarity Center then organized a meeting of agricultural workers to discuss the draft again and plan campaign steps, including social media outreach.
They formed a coalition with civil society organizations to launch an advocacy campaign that included petitions and public statements to the Ministry of Labor and other government officials which, along with social media outreach to mobilize public support, was key to moving the government to pass the regulation protecting these essential workers.
“I heard from the Ministry of Labor they said they were listening to, keeping abreast of what was spread in the media,” says Abu Nijmeh.
“The regulation that has just been promulgated, we hope it will protect female workers in this sector and it is the opportunity to create the political will to recognize the importance of women’s contributions to the agriculture sector and the importance of women’s contributions to other informal sectors,” says Naffa.
Worker Education Essential for Success
Abu Nijmeh, Zinati and Naffa all emphasized the need to ensure implementation and enforcement of the new regulation, especially workplace inspection, safety and health and child labor. Under the new regulation, children younger than age 16 cannot work in agriculture and those between ages 16 and 18 can only be engaged in non-hazardous work.
The regulation “shall never be enforced without pushing,” says Naffa. “We need to lobby more, engage in campaigns, reach out to the Labor Ministry, the Transport Ministry.” Key to its success is widespread education of agricultural workers about their rights, says Zinati.
A long-time union organizer who began by unionizing court workers in Beirut, Lebanon, Zinati says union committees are now set up in every village, and literacy classes and other education opportunities are offered so workers can better champion their rights.
“If I see people who are done an injustice, who are oppressed, the only way for them to gain their rights is for them to unite,” he says. “This legislation opens the horizon so workers can play a bigger role in pushing their rights,” he says.
Teachers in Jordan are “insisting on their legal rights to have an association” and will not give up after the government dissolved their union in July and imprisoned union activists, says Kefah Abu Farhan, a board member with the Jordan Teacher Association (JTA).
“Teachers, male and female, stress day after day that these measures are not acceptable for us and we will not back down until the teachers association goes back to its legal standing,” said Abu Farhan, speaking recently with the Solidarity Center through a translator.
The JTA, representing 140,000 active members, waged a month-long strike in 2019 when the government failed to respond to its demand for a 50 percent salary increase. As a result of the strike, teachers received a 35 percent wage increase and 14 additional improvements, the most important of which was the union’s participation in managing the teachers’ savings fund, with its assets totaling more than $141 million.
In July 2020, police raided JTA headquarters in Amman, the capital, and 11 of its branches across Jordan and jailed thousands of teachers, including JTA chairman Nasser Nawasreh. The teachers, some of whom went on a hunger strike, were released after spending a month in prison. Many are still being prosecuted in court, says Abu Farhan. In addition, the government forced 62 teachers to take early retirement “as punishment for expressing their views,” said Hala Ahed, a lawyer on the JTA’s legal team, speaking with the Solidarity Center. The government dissolved the JTA for two years in December 2020 and imprisoned its board members for one year.
Crackdown on Union Freedom Dangerous Road for Democracy
The Jordan government’s move to shut down the JTA was denounced by the global labor movement and human rights organizations worldwide. The United Nations Human Rights Commission said the action is “emblematic of a growing pattern of suppression of public freedoms and the restriction of civic and democratic space by the Jordanian government, including against labor rights activists, human rights defenders, journalists and those who have peacefully criticized the government.”
In October, Jordan authorities barred the JTA from holding a press conference to discuss the conditions teachers are experiencing, a ban implemented by security forces delivering an order from the Amman governor.
Jordanian civil society organizations and unions drafted a solidarity letter condemning measures targeting the right to form unions and other civic freedoms. The JTA’s success in winning the government’s agreement to sign a collective bargaining contract, and the strong stance of teachers demanding their rights, attracted broad public support. The government shut down the JTA in part because it “has become ground zero for those who want to gather, for the middle class to voice their dissatisfaction,” says Ahed.
“There is a symbolic message sent here: Officials can encroach upon constitutional freedoms and escape punishment,” she said. “This could be indication that the upcoming period will be one of oppression, suppression, restraining freedoms in very blunt manner. This is very dangerous.”
Reversing the Gains of the 2011 Arab Uprising
The teachers’ union was established in 2012 after the Jordan monarchy issued a royal decree, reviving the union suspended in the 1950s. Expanded freedom to form unions was among some of the civic freedoms working people championed and won during the 2011 Middle East and North Africa Arab uprisings. In 2011, Jordan amended its constitution, giving political parties and unions the right to form.
Teachers had fought for their rights to form unions and collectively bargain for decades, with many imprisoned in 1975 for setting up committees to create a union. After a new teacher’s movement arose in the 1990s, they were barred again from unionizing when the government cited the constitution to justify its refusal to recognize a teacher’s union.
The victories of 2012 “occurred because of the sacrifices of workers,” says Abu Farhan. “It’s very dangerous, very dangerous, for unions to lose their rights.” Although the country’s constitutional court has recognized International Labor Organization Convention 87 on the right to freedom of association, the government has not yet ratified it.
The government shuttered the JTA after it asked members on Facebook to weigh in on how to ensure the government follow up with its promised pay increases. One of the suggestions called for sit-ins and demonstrations, and proposed activities also included thinking about participating in or boycotting national elections.
The JTA did not commit such a violation of the law because it did not call for an election boycott and calling for demonstrations is not illegal, says Ahed. “There was no criminal act,” she said. “The criminal act under this count only applies to physically preventing people from coming to vote.” During the court trial of JTA Board members, no witnesses were allowed for the defense, she said.
“When the JTA is no more, we go back to pre-2012 days,” Abu Farhan said. “Teachers have to claim their rights, lobby, advocate for their rights. On top of that, we have deteriorating conditions of teachers and their difficulty in retaining top-notch performance. We go backward regarding future reforms in Jordan.”
Yet as Abu Farhan said, teachers will not be silenced: They protested in January even as Jordanian security forces barricaded the roads leading to the Jordan legislature in Amman. The government also placed a metal fence around an open area opposite the parliament in an attempt to prevent large gatherings.
Throughout their protests, teachers carry signs supporting the freedom to negotiate for better wages and working conditions through their freely formed union: “My union is a national achievement that Jordanian teachers will not give up on,” and, simply, “Bring back the teachers’ union.”
Women’s rights groups and worker advocates in Jordan are hailing the re-opening of child care centers, a move they say enables women running small day care centers or working in larger nurseries to support themselves, while ensuing safe care for the children of women returning to their jobs after the novel coronavirus closures.
The more than 1,400 day care facilities across the kingdom opened July 4 under strict safety measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, including masks, social distancing and weekly exams for the children.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, “we called on the government to pay attention to women’s work conditions and labor rights in general, day care workers in particular,” says Randa Naffa, co-founder of SADAQA, an organization founded by working parents to advocate for family-friendly work environments.
As SADAQA campaigned to open day care centers, the organization joined with the Women in Business Arabia Network to create an online platform that shed light on the challenges day care center workers face, and spearheaded a Facebook campaign urging the opening of day care facilities.
“Women’s participation in the labor market is very weak, and the absence of the day care facilities is one of the reasons why women don’t join the labor market or withdraw from it,” says Naffa.
Women Back to Work Without Safe Places for the Children
Day care centers, which serve 50,000 children, remained closed weeks after other private-sector businesses were allowed to open, even though “working women had no choice but to go back to work,” says Tasneem Dudin, owner of a day care facility. Without access to licensed facilities, women were faced with a choice to leave their children alone at home or send them to unregistered nurseries that may not be following safe health practices, she says.
“Day care facilities are usually small projects for women who are struggling and facing the economic and social challenges,” Dudin says. Most facilities do not have bank accounts and typically employ workers day to day. Dudin estimates that some 90 percent of the facilities could not pay rent or workers’ wages after they were closed during the lockdown.
“The owners of these facilities couldn’t pay wages because of the economic crisis and many workers have been laid off and ended up unemployed,” says Mohammad Ersan, the host of Workers of the Country (عمال البلد), a worker-centered radio program launched last year in cooperation with the Solidarity Center. The June show featured Naffa, Dudin and others who discussed the need to open child care facilities.
Saba Yaseen says she cared for her two children, ages 5 and 2, throughout the lockdown as she teleworked from home, and her husband had to take off work to care for them when she had to leave for urgent matters. But once back at work, she would have not choice but to send the children to unregistered facilities if the formal facilities did not open, she said on the radio program.
Callers to a recent radio show about taxi workers in Jordan had many questions, including:
- Why are taxi drivers classified as independent contractors rather than as employees who are eligible for better wages and benefits?
- Why do Jordan’s laws prohibit taxi drivers from joining the country’s transport workers union?
The worker-centered radio show, Workers of the Country (عمال البلد), launched in July by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Jordan (FITU), offers the audience an opportunity to hear worker struggles and connects workers with the union—several callers to the August program asked how they could join FITU.
Hosted by Mohammad Al Ersan, in cooperation with FITU President Suleiman Al Jamani, the show has featured union activists and experts on domestic worker rights, labor law and sexual harassment and gender-based violence at work. Peppered with clips from worker rallies and opportunities for the audience to engage with speakers, the show offers a rare look at the day-to-day lives of working people and their efforts to improve their lives and livelihoods.
The segment on taxi drivers highlighted the drivers’ challenges in making a living, a struggle they share with “gig workers” and those in the informal economy around the world. As “self-employed” workers, the nearly 70,000 taxi drivers are excluded from labor laws, and so have no contract, paid leave, retirement or other social protections, Al Seryani said on the show. To make enough to get by, they work long shifts, up to 18 hours per day, which endangers drivers and passengers, he said, and they have suffered for decades without fundamental labor rights.
A union member who called in reinforced Al Seryani, saying the union was established because of the oppression the drivers face, and Manasour Murad, a member of Parliament who also called in said the Ministry of Transport lacks the strategic planning necessary to provide efficient transportation services, including the ability to improve drivers’ working conditions.
Workers’ Struggles, Union Support
In bringing workers’ struggles to the forefront, the 50-minute program probes issues rarely highlighted in the mainstream media yet which are fundamental to the country’s economy and the working people who build it. Fundamental to the discussions are the ways in which unions enable workers to achieve a voice in improving their workplaces and standing up for their rights.
For instance, in exploring sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence (GBVH) at work during the show’s second segment, guests highlighted the role of unions in defending workers who experience GBVH on the job and how unions are a resource for assisting workers in reporting abuse while preventing retaliation for standing up for the right to a violence-free workplace. Wijdan Abu Ghanam, leader of the FITU women’s committee, Reema Khaled, an agriculture union activist, and Reem Aslan, a working women’s rights activist and founding member of the Association Sadaqa, a Jordanian women’s rights association, took part in the discussion.
In an another program, Salem Al Mefleh, a lawyer in Jordan, discussed migrant domestic worker rights and the difficulty in enforcing laws to protect them. The segment also featured Hayel Al Zenen, director of the country’s domestic worker directorate, and a domestic worker activist from Ethiopia who discussed how migrant domestic workers in Jordan often labor 24 hours with little food and no leave. Some employers refuse to let them leave the house and never even pay their wages, according to the activist, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her job.
With an estimated 440,000 to 540,000 migrant workers in a country with fewer than 10 million people, migrant workers are an essential part of the economy yet have few rights under labor laws, including the ability to form unions—a situation all-too often replicated across Gulf countries and around the world.
Meeting the Challenges of Restrictive New Labor Laws
The country’s newly amended labor code was the focus of an early segment and an issue discussed throughout the shows. Signed into law in May, the amendments restrict workers’ fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining and fail to address long-standing limitations on worker rights in Jordan, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
The labor law also now makes it easier for employers to arbitrarily fire workers, says attorney and women’s rights activist Hala Ahed, who joined Hamada Abu Nijmeh, director of the Worker Center, in a discussion on the new labor codes. Further, independent unions like FITU are now unable to register as unions under the labor law.
Despite the challenges, Al Seryani says that as an independent union, FITU has achieved significant victories for workers in improving wages and working conditions, a message the country’s new worker-centered radio program is conveying each week through the voices of workers themselves.