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.
Jordan’s Senate is set to consider amendments to the country’s labor code that will restrict worker’ fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining and that fail to address Jordan’s longstanding limitations on worker rights, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which is joined by global unions in condemning the proposal and urging legislators to withdraw it.
The amendments, passed in recent weeks by the country’s House of Representatives, increase restrictions on freedom of association by requiring the Ministry of Labor to approve union bylaws when they register with the government. The amendments also give the Labor Ministry the authority to dissolve unions and impose fines and imprisonment for those who continue union activities for a dissolved union.
(Tell the Jordan government to bring the country’s labor laws in line with international standards.)
Since 1976, no new trade union has been allowed to form in Jordan, which also prohibits migrant workers—who comprise a large portion of the Jordanian workforce—from forming unions. Jordan labor laws also permit unions in only 17 sectors set by the government, and only one union per sector is allowed to represent workers. Most recently, the government rejected the registration of an independent union in the agriculture sector because agriculture is not on the government’s list.
The International Labor Organization (ILO), which also sent Jordan’s minister a memo detailing the amendments’ violations of international labor law, has repeatedly pointed out Jordan’s failure abide by ILO conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Independent unions in Jordan are also pushing back on the proposed amendments, with workers protesting at parliament and union leaders writing open letters to the government urging lawmakers follow international labor standards.
Read the Jordan Federation of Independent Trade Unions press release and letter (Arabic) and the Jordanian Network for Human Rights letter (Arabic).
The “Made in Jordan” label is familiar to U.S. consumers shopping for shirts, jeans and other clothes. Mervat Jumhawi, a Jordanian union organizer, is actively ensuring the largely migrant workforce that cuts and sews these garments does so in safe conditions, receives fair wages and is treated with respect on the job.
Mervat Jumhawi in a selfie wih Indian textile workers. Photo courtesy Mervat Jumhawi
“I was a garment worker and I know what exploitation is, I knows what that means,” says Jumhawi. After working 13 years in textile factories, Jumhawi spent six years on the board of the General Trade Union of Workers in Textile, Garment and Clothing Industries, where she served until recently. The union represents all 55,000 textile workers throughout Jordan, including migrant workers who comprise 71 percent of the country’s garment factory workforce.
Garment exports, produced primarily for the United States, account for some 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, with factories located in the Sahab, Dulail and Ramtha industrial zones.
“In the beginning, I was not familiar with migrant worker issues,” Jumhawi says, speaking through a translator. “But after I worked with migrant workers, I was more interested in their issues because they are more marginalized and vulnerable.”
Migrant Worker Exploitation Begins in the Home Country
Exploitation of migrant workers in Jordan and other countries around the world often begins in their home countries, where they typically pay huge fees to labor brokers for a job. Indebted when they start their employment, migrant workers often endure abusive conditions to pay off their loans. Employers also may confiscate passports, effectively holding migrant workers hostage and unable to leave if they are not paid or if they experience verbal or physical abuse. Jumhawi helps raise workers’ awareness of their rights under the law and assists workers who are not receiving health care, who have been abused or otherwise need assistance making their way through the legal system.
More than 70 percent of migrant textile workers in Jordan are women. Credit: Solidarity Center
More than 70 percent of migrant textile workers in Jordan are women, primarily from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Jumhawi’s one-on-one assistance with garment workers and her dedication to improving their working conditions—she spent 40 days and nights with 1,300 striking Burmese garment workers—has generated tremendous trust among the workers.
In one instance, when Bangladesh and Sri Lankan workers went on strike in 2013, Jumhawi tried to speak with managers, but they would not let her in the factory. As she left, she looked back, and saw hundreds of workers following her. Her challenge to management gave the workers strength, she said. Seeing the workers take off with Jumhawi in the lead, managers ultimately negotiated—but not until Jumhawi had talked with each worker to hear specific grievances.
Solidarity Center Support Assists Migrant Workers
The Solidarity Center provided support over the past year for the migrant outreach project among textile workers, holding trainings on combating labor trafficking and exploitation through collective worker action. Workers were encouraged to form committees to monitor labor rights violations and refer them to the union resolution.
Of the 55,000 textile workers in Jordan, 71 percent are migrant workers. Credit: Solidarity Center
Over the years, the Solidarity Center also has worked closely with the garment workers union, and in May 2013, the union negotiated a contract with employers that covers all textile workers, including migrant workers. The contract set up health and safety committees, requires employer pay for transportation and food and prohibits labor recruiters in origin countries from charging fees to workers.
“Our union is keen on migrant worker issues from the moment they arrive in Jordan,” says Fathalla Al Omrani, garment workers’ union president.
Migrant workers are housed in employer-owned dormitories, which often fail to meet safety and health standards, according to Sara Khatib, a Jordan-based Solidarity Center program office for anti-trafficking initiatives. The contract requires employers follow Ministry of Health standards for living conditions, such as not overcrowding workers in a room.
“We were 10 to 12 women living in one room,” says one garment worker. “After the inspectors visit, the numbers decreased to six or seven.”
‘I Will Struggle for Migrant Workers to the End’
Supervisors yell at the workers if they don’t reach the production target and may deduct pay or even deport them, says Jumhawi. Such actions violate Jordan’s labor laws and the union contract.
Mervat (center), joins women from Bangladesh, the largest group of migrant workers in Jordan’s textile industry. Photo courtesy Mervat Jumhawi
Jumhawi has been instrumental in helping workers enforce the contract and seek justice under Jordan’s labor laws. She also recently assisted with production of a video documenting migrant workers’ struggles in Jordan and the role of union strength in helping workers achieve their goals. When asked about her most important victories, she says she counts “every single and small achievement,” as a major success, “even helping a worker with a small thing.”
“Mervat is very close to the workers and they all trust her,” says Khatib, who works closely with Jumhawi. “She follows up on the workers’ cases seriously and she deeply cares about them. She’s a hard working woman and a real unionist.”
Jumhawi works 12 hour days, seven days a week, unless she is too tired or sick, she says. Sometimes the long hours and tough demands make her want to leave the job. But she changes her mind when she thinks of the workers.
“I will struggle for migrant workers to the end, and I encourage all workers, especially women, to become unionists. When I became member of the union, I became stronger.”
Domestic workers in Jordan are set to celebrate the official formation of a worker rights network that includes migrant workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
The September 19 launch is a first in Jordan and a rare move in the Arab region, where more than 2.4 million migrant domestic workers often toil 12–20 hour days, six or seven days a week cleaning homes, preparing meals and caring for children and the elderly. Migrant workers in Jordan, like in many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, cannot form unions to improve their working conditions.
“Domestic workers have so many problems” and had no one to assist them until now, says Indrani, who came to Jordan as a domestic worker from Sri Lanka 20 years ago and is now helping build the network by reaching out to domestic workers in the Sri Lankan community.
Fish Ip, Asia regional coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), is traveling to Jordan for the event. IDWF members and allies, like the Solidarity Center, helped push for the 2011 passage of the International Labor Organization convention on decent work for domestic workers. Officials from the origin country embassies for the migrant domestic workers will also attend.
Through Trainings, Domestic Workers Take Leading Role
The project began early in 2014, when the Solidarity Center approached leaders in migrant worker communities to discuss plans to combat trafficking of vulnerable domestic workers and assist those experiencing worker rights abuses. Forty-two domestic worker leaders from the largest communities in Jordan—Filipino, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Indonesian—then took part in trainings covering worker rights, anti-human trafficking, assisting domestic workers in finding legal assistance and building worker networks.
This core group began monthly meetings in August to discuss issues, learn from studies and hear from guest speakers on migrant domestic worker issues. They are also connected with IDWF affiliates in their home countries. Network leaders bring new domestic workers to the meetings—“I bring 15 domestic workers with me,” says Indrani. So far, 268 domestic workers have participated in the training workshops and network meetings.
“We know each other, we know how to help each other,” Indrani says. Now that word has gotten around, domestic workers “know how we are helping, now they are asking to come. This time they are the ones reaching for us.”
A key draw for domestic workers is the legal clinic the Solidarity Center launched in October 2014 in partnership with the Adalah Center for Human Rights Studies. The clinic takes place after each meeting, and more than 85 domestic workers have so far sought assistance.
Domestic Workers Seek out Network
“Everyone is coming to me and asking how to get involved,” says May Joy Guarizo Salapare, a domestic worker who has been in Jordan for six years and is helping support her husband and family in the Philippines. She created a Facebook page for domestic workers in Jordan, where she shares news of the network’s meetings and legal clinics.
Guarizo says she frequently encounters domestic workers who “are asking me for help with their employer.” Domestic workers in Jordan, as in other countries, often report that employers have taken their passports, rendering them virtual prisoners, and do not receive their salary for years, she says.
Earlier this year, Guarizo participated in a U.S. Department of State Professional Fellows exchange program and traveled to the United States to examine international models for overcoming the obstacles of reaching and organizing domestic and migrant workers.
Until now, domestic workers in Jordan rarely met others not from their home countries. The new network has “united domestic workers under one umbrella, says Sara Khatib, Solidarity Center anti-trafficking in persons program officer in Jordan. The network is designed to provide a collective voice for migrant domestic workers in Jordan to ensure that they have access to full workers rights.
“Domestic workers here in Jordan are helping each other, all over the full community,” Guarizo says.
Going forward, the network plans to push for laws protecting migrant domestic workers and will continue to recruit and train domestic workers on their rights. They hope to eventually form a union that will be recognized by the Jordanian government.
On a trip to Kuwait two years ago, Nisha Varia from Human Rights Watch visited a hospital where two rooms were filled with injured domestic workers who had tried to escape from their employers’ homes. Trapped in abusive situations, the women jumped from windows or were beaten by employers as they sought to leave.
The experience for domestic workers in Middle Eastern Gulf states, and in many countries around the world, has not significantly improved since then, said Varia and others at a recent panel in Washington, D.C., “Migrant Workers in the Gulf States: Transnational Policy Responses to Protect Labor Rights.”
In the Gulf, “employers feel they have bought domestic workers because they paid the recruitment fee,” Varia said. The situation is exacerbated in Gulf countries by the kefala system, which ties employment of foreign workers to their employers, and makes it illegal for workers to get another job in the country. Employers also typically take the passports of domestic workers, who toil unseen from the public and are especially vulnerable to abuse.
June 16, International Domestic Workers Day, marks the fourth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention 189 on Domestic Workers, a landmark standard championed by unions, civil society groups and human rights organizations worldwide. Its passage signaled the global community’s recognition that the 53 million workers who labor in households, often in isolation and at risk of exploitation and abuse, deserve full protection of labor laws.
The historic action indicated the recognition that domestic workers, 83 percent of whom are women, perform work—and that entails rights equal to all other wage earners. Eighteen countries have ratified the Convention since its passage. (ILO resources for and information on domestic workers here.)
The panel, which encompassed broader issues of labor migration, highlighted the overlap between domestic workers and migrant workers. The Solidarity Center works with domestic workers in countries such as Dominican Republic, where most domestic workers are from Haiti and in Jordan, where domestic workers have migrated for work from the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries.
In Jordan, the Solidarity Center is assisting domestic workers build support for their rights on the job. In a first-of-its-kind network, some 250 domestic workers meet regularly, with translation conducted simultaneously in three, or sometimes four, languages. The Domestic Workers Network in Jordan is cooperating with the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), which formed to help push the ILO Domestic Workers convention and which now represents workers around the world.
Panel participants pointed to the common experiences of those who migrate for jobs, especially domestic workers. After they arrive in the destination country, their cell phones often are confiscated and contact with their families is limited. They are completely excluded from the country’s labor laws, typically do not get any days off and generally do not receive the wage they were promised.
Varia likened the experience of migrant domestic workers to abusive domestic violence situations in which employers exert power by withholding food from domestic workers and force them to sleep on the floor or in closet-like spaces.
In their studies, panelists found that when migrant workers understand their rights before they migrate, they are more likely to leave abusive situations quickly, indicating the value of programs that educate domestic workers and other potential migrants in their home countries.
A better solution, they agreed, is the availability of employment at home.
“If people could find good jobs, they wouldn’t migrate,” Varia said.
Other panelists included: Mahendra Pandey, a former migrant worker; Sarah Paoletti, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Transnational Legal Clinic; and Eleanor Taylor-Nicholson, an independent consultant on migrant worker rights. Shannon Lederer AFL-CIO director of immigration policy, moderated the panel, sponsored by the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center.