When Meilani Yuswandari, an Indonesian from Jakarta, completed her higher secondary education, she began looking for work abroad. During her search, Yuswandari met a recruiting agent who assured her of an office job in Jordan. But when she reached the country in 2011, she realised that the office job she was promised did not exist. Instead, her agent had found her a job as the domestic help of a large family, and she was forced into work she had not agreed to. Yuswandari had to cook, clean and manage all household chores, and was not allowed to leave the house under any circumstances. “The agent took away my passport and passed it on to my employer,” Yuswandari told me when I spoke to her last month. “When I asked for it, she”—her employer—“said she was keeping it safely for me. But eventually, she claimed to have lost it.”
Unable to understand Arabic, Yuswandari often made mistakes. Her employers would beat her up each time she erred. A year ago, they accused her of stealing a gold chain belonging to their daughter. With no witnesses to vouch for her and worried that she would be handed over to the police, Yuswandari fled the house. She had a photocopy of her passport, and approached the Indonesian embassy to try and get her documents renewed so she could return home. But the embassy refused to help her. Yuswandari is still in Jordan, and remains undocumented. When I spoke to her, she was working part-time for a different employer, and was under the constant threat of being picked up and detained by the police.
Yuswandari’s case is not an aberration. The exploitation that she was subjected to is symptomatic of a larger predicament plaguing migrant workers in Jordan. In 2015, two domestic workers from Indonesia were executed in Saudi Arabia. Soon after, the Indonesian government took cognisance of the state of affairs, and banned its citizens from migrating to 21 countries, including Jordan.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO)—an agency under the United Nations—there are over 53 million migrant workers worldwide. Of these, 83 percent of are women, and a majority of them are employed in the Middle East. These women occupy a grey world in which their legal status as workers is unacknowledged and wholly dependent on their employers. Their reliance on their employers makes these women vulnerable to various forms of abuse and exploitation.
Sara Khatib, a program officer at the Solidarity Center—an institute that has been trying to organise domestic workers in Jordan since 2014—explained that there are nearly 80,000 domestic workers in Jordan, of whom 30,000 are undocumented. However, by most accounts, Jordan is reputed for its ostensible commitment to the labour rights of migrant domestic workers, particularly when compared to other nations in the region. For instance, it is the only Arab state and one of nine nations worldwide to have signed the Global Jobs Pact, which was adopted by the ILO in 2009 to ensure the fair treatment of workers everywhere. Yet, within Jordan, inequity and exploitation remain a chronic reality for many workers, particularly those coming from outside.
In addition to ratifying several international labour and human rights conventions, Jordan upholds the rights of migrant labourers through its Labor Law of 2008. The law prescribes strict guidelines for employers. It mandates, for instance, that domestic workers be limited to working for ten flexible hours a day. Workers are also entitled to a weekly off, an annual vacation and sick leave. The employers must provide them with a single contract, written in both Arabic and their mother tongue. The law also prescribes stringent action for any employers that violate these regulations.
But the workers are rarely able to avail their rights. Many of them are unaware of the law, and often illiterate. The problem is exacerbated by the difficulty of proving violations within homes, since inspectors from the Jordanian Ministry of Labour do not have the jurisdiction to visit a house. “There aren’t enough MoL inspectors to keep a check on employers,” a staff member at the ministry of labour told me,
An employer usually spends 4,000 Jordanian Dinars—approximately Rs 3,782,70—or more for a migrant domestic worker. This includes the fees of the recruiting agent and the cost of the employee’s airfare. The amount received by a worker varies, depending on her language and housekeeping skills. In 2011, the Jordanian government set the national minimum wage to 190 Jordinan Dinar a month, but migrant workers were excluded from this order—a decision that was criticized by many activists in the country.
Under the Kafala system—the sponsorship structure used to monitor migrant labourers in the domestic and construction sectors in nations such as Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq and Jordan, among others—a migrant worker coming into the country is supposed to be sponsored by his or her employer. The sponsor is responsible for their employee’s work and residency permits, and is entitled to their services for the duration of the contract. If an employee runs away or leaves before the end of their contract period, they are legally declared “absconding” and are liable to be detained by the police.
As an increasing number of women are opting to work in Jordan, the demand for domestic workers in the country has grown considerably. While local domestic workers charge a significant amount for their services, work for fixed hours and are familiar with their rights, migrants from South and East Asia tend to be more impuissant, and subsequently, more pliable to their employer’s demands. They are often hired as live-in workers, and toil around the clock in their employers’ homes. “The very word khamty (my slave) used for a maid is undignified,” said Diala al-Amiri, the executive director of the Tamkeen Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights—a non-governmental organisation in Jordan, which specialises in providing legal aid for migrants.
Stories of abuse abound. Al-Amiri told me that a Sri Lankan worker she spoke said her employer gave her only a loaf of bread a day. A Filipino worker told the executive director on Tamkeen that she had to save leftovers at the restaurant run by her employer to eat later. Though an employee can make a complain about their passport being confiscated to the Attorney General’s office, if their employers file an absconding report against them in the police station, they cannot leave the country because of the Kafala system. Often, employers file false cases of theft with the police to prevent the worker from leaving even after the contract period has expired.
In June 2014, Zubeida, a migrant worker from Bangladesh who was overworked and being subjected to violence at the hands of her employers, ran away from their home. The employers retaliated by reporting her to the police, and she was sent to a detention center. Since she knew only limited English and no Arabic, Zubeida was unaware of why she had been picked up. She used the single monthly phone call allowed to detainees to contact Tamkeen. It was through their intervention that she was able to return home.
According to Jordanian law, no employer can withhold the passports or legal documents of the migrant workers who are employed with them. On 13 September 2001, the government approved an amendment to a section of the labour law, which concerns domestic workers, cooks, gardeners, and other workers who fall within that sector. The amendment decreed that employees could inform their employers and leave the house, instead of asking for their permission to do so. Yet, violations continue.
Most South Asians working in Jordan usually make it there after paying huge amounts to recruiting agencies. The agencies usually take away their passports, and pass them to the employers. “The employers take the passport with the excuse of making the work and residency permits for the domestic worker and they are never returned,” said Syed Zakir Hussain of the Solidarity Center. Of the 757 complaints that Tamkeen received from domestic workers in 2011, 530 concerned workers who had their passports confiscated, and 465 were regarding those whose employers were withholding their salaries, either partially or completely. In some cases, employers fail to renew the residency and work permits of the domestic workers. If the authorities detect this discrepancy, the worker is fined for overstay. Workers who approach an agent for a new work permit are forced to incur a huge expense to procure the documents.
Doris Fernando, a Filipino worker who has been in Amman for the past 14 years, had to persuade her employers for a year before she got her passport back. She told them that they did not have the right to keep her documents. In an interview with the researchers at Solidarity Center, Fernando said that she is very particular about her weekly off and breaks from work. Fernando’s familearity with her rights is probably because the Philippines Embassy makes it a point to meet all Filipino workers at the embassy once every week. The workers are apprised of their rights, and their problems are promptly attended to. When Bonita Aguilera, a friend of Fernando’s and another Filipino worker, lost her passport, she informed her embassy. The authorities issued her a new one on the basis of the photocopy she had in her possession.
Younger women often face sexual exploitation as well. Latika, a Sri Lankan domestic worker who came to Jordan in 2015, was sexually assaulted by her employer in his wife’s absence. When I spoke to her in May this year, she told me that she was beaten up when she complained to her employer’s wife upon her return. Latika got in touch with her recruiting agent and demanded to be sent back home, but the agent locked her up in his office without food and water. She was sent back to her employer after two days. No one paid any heed to her repeated pleas to let her return home. She was tortured, her hair was cut off, and petrol poured over her head, which affected her eyesight. Her employer decided to hand her over to a taxi-driver, and told her that she would be taken to her embassy. Instead, the taxi-driver took her to his house and locked her up. Fearing the worst, she tied up several pairs of pants and jumped out of the window. She was eventually detained by the police.
As of now, South Asian embassies, with the exception of Sri Lanka, do not provide the domestic workers from their countries with shelter homes. Indonesian and Philippines embassies, on the other hand, have safe shelters for their nationals. Workers can stay at these centres while the embassy assists them in returning home or pressing charges against their employers.
Even though the Sri Lankan embassy has a shelter home, the workers I spoke to claimed that their problems were rarely attended to. They told me that the Jordanian police helped them far more than the embassy did. Several of the people I spoke to at Tamkeen feel that it is best for domestic workers to freelance; this, they felt, will release them from the clutches of exploitative employers, give them the freedom to move around, and work by the hour. It will also ensure their privacy.
Nevertheless, it is crucial for all migrant domestic workers to be trained in their legal rights, the local language, household and skills in navigating bureaucracy to counter exploitation.
Sri Lanka is attempting to take the lead in this regard. The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) started the Sahana Piyasa—meaning “home of comfort”—welfare centres to cater to returnees from the Middle East at two international airports. The centres produce and provide Safe Labour Migration Guides to inform workers of their rights and resources available to them in the countries they are migrating to.
These centres also provide medical care. They help those workers who are pregnant in delivering their babies. If the mother does not want to keep the child for fear of being stigmatised, the centres assist in the adoption process. Since 2014, under its Safe Labour migration programme, the SLBFE has instituted a month long pre-departure training under its Safe Labour Migration Programme for women looking to travel abroad for work. All recruiting agents in Sri Lanka are linked to the SLBFE under the programme. It has also incorporated the Sahana Piyasa welfare centres, and imparts pre-departure training in not just housekeeping and lifestyle skills, but on how and where to seek help in destination countries when in distress. With the help of the ILO, the organisation has also prepared booklets and handouts that list out the addresses of Sri Lankan embassies and shelters in various destination countries. The literature also instructs workers on operating bank accounts, executing money transfers, and contacting Sahana Piyasa centres in Sri Lanka for help. But despite these initiatives, Sri Lankan workers—not unlike their counterparts from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh—continue to be abused and ill-treated by their employers.
(Originally published in the Caravan, India.)