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Sisters in solidarity: the communal care of domestic workers in the Middle East

Jordan has recognised domestic workers in local labour laws, but many workers are still stuck in dire situations with few good options available to them.

Sunrise in Amman. Florent Lamoureux/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Since the 1970s, domestic workers have been migrating to the Middle East for work, often enduring exploitation, abuse, and even human trafficking in the process.

Domestic workers may pay high recruitment fees to labour brokers, essentially paying for a position that will trap them in debt bondage. Vague employment contracts – or contract terms that change once they arrive in the country – allow for abuses such as excessive hours, the denial of requests for time off, dangerous working conditions, forced labour, and wage theft to occur. And migrant workers in Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries are subject to the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties work and residency permits to a single employer who consequently has near-absolute power in the employer-employee relationship.

Migrant domestic workers often face extreme isolation in the workplace, i.e. their employer’s household. They often experience verbal, physical, and sexual violence, as well as inappropriate housing and sleeping conditions, and are therefore denied their dignity and their safety. If they are undocumented, they are even more vulnerable to exploitation.

There are also Jordanian women and Syrian refugee women who work as domestic workers, but do not gain their positions through recruitment agencies. They are day workers, and their work is not governed by written contracts. They are not subjected to the kafala system, since they are not linked to one employer by a work permit, but they suffer from other problems: low wages, instability at work, the absence of contracts, among others. They are not unionised, as Jordanians’ right to organise and to form trade unions is very restricted.

An estimated 80,000 migrant domestic workers – mostly from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Bangladesh – currently live in Jordan. Domestic workers were historically excluded from Jordanian labour law, until 2009, when the amendments to the law included domestic workers. However, the rights of domestic workers continue to be violated and there have been no significant improvements regarding the regulation of employee-employer relationships. There are not enough tools and procedures to enforce the law, and domestic workers still suffer from kafala practices and various forms of discrimination. For example, they are not registered in the social security system; they are neither allowed to get married during the employment period nor have children (which means they cannot take maternity leave); they are excluded from the minimum wage for Jordanians; and their wages are decided in a bilateral agreement between Jordan and the sending countries.

Workers' unfamiliarity with Jordanian labour law makes it difficult to access the justice process. In addition, employers fail to understand and accept the nature of the contractual relationship that stipulates the rights and obligations of both employers and employees, and instead adhere to the exploitive kafala system and the slavery-like practices that come with it.

It was within this context that in 2014, the Solidarity Center took the initiative to create the Domestic Workers Solidarity Network in Jordan. This was the first initiative of its kind in the country and one of few such initiatives in the region. The network, whose motto is “Sisters in Solidarity”, aims to serve and support domestic workers through awareness-raising activities, legal assistance through the Legal Clinic Initiative, and roundtables in coordination with the Adalah Center for Human Rights Studies. The network also strives to detect cases of forced labour and other forms of labour trafficking and severe exploitation, and refer them to the proper authorities.

The network has so far reached out to almost 400 domestic workers, and around 150 are involved, active, and continually looking to expand our membership. The majority of our members live independently because they work on a part-time basis. Their employers do not know about their activism outside working hours. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reach domestic workers who are locked in the employers' homes, and if they were lucky enough to be allowed to leave their employers wouldn't let them participate in activities that raise awareness of their rights. Until the law in Jordan changes to make it safer for migrant domestic workers to organise, the Domestic Workers Solidarity Network members need to be careful about being too public about their activities.

Knowledge is power

Many migrant workers receive no training prior to their departure and often have limited information about the country of destination, the local customs, and the conditions and nature of their work. On other occasions, workers are described one job, which turns out to be dramatically different when they arrive on site, far from their support networks and with little knowledge of their rights. In worst-case scenarios, unscrupulous labour brokers deceive migrant workers and traffic them into situations of forced labour.

Lacking awareness of the regulations, laws, procedures, and services available to domestic workers who find themselves in exploitative situations, many workers leave the workplace to escape violence and improper working conditions. They usually go to their embassy or to the recruitment agency that brought them to the country. However, given their weak position and subjection to the kafala system, they are usually returned to the employer to work under the same exploitative conditions.

In other cases, an abused worker may escape her employer-sponsor and go underground, working without a passport or without valid work and residency permits on an hourly or daily basis. In this case, the worker is breaking the law and runs the risk of being tracked by the police, detained, and deported. She then becomes an easy target for black-market brokers of work permits and at risk of greater exploitation.

Towards the end of last century, ‘human trafficking’ began to be recognised as a serious crime, and the United Nations negotiated international conventions to address it. These conventions require member states to incorporate international standards into their domestic legal frameworks. Jordan was one of the first states in the Middle East to cover domestic workers by local labour laws. Jordan also issued a special regulation on domestic workers in 2009, as well as a law to prevent human trafficking. In addition, the country established a special unit to combat human trafficking within the Criminal Investigation Department and, by the end of 2015, the government established a shelter for victims of human trafficking, among other legislative and procedural advancements.

To provide workers with the information to protect themselves and to understand their rights, the Domestic Workers Solidarity Network holds awareness-raising sessions that focus on labour legislation to clarify the nature of contractual relationships in domestic work, under Jordanian labour law and domestic worker regulations. It runs programmes to educate workers on the terms and conditions of their contracts, and how to terminate a contractual relationship or change employer through legal channels. In addition, the network coordinates with the International Domestic Workers Federation, which supports efforts to communicate with workers, coordinate and organise efforts on the ground, and conduct outreach to workers before they leave their home country.

Network members learn about and discuss how labour violations and breaches in human rights can be identified and dealt with, and how to refer problems to authorities, security centres, embassies, and legal-aid centers. The network stands with workers that have been victimised in the workplace and helps them exercise their legal rights. The network also supports workers who are in conflict with the law and helps them, to the extent that is possible, resolve legal matters.

And with the support of Jordanian and international NGOs, the network has trained domestic workers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka to become leaders and ambassadors in their labour communities in raising awareness and providing support, guidance, and labour solidarity in accordance with available legal procedures.


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