"Don’t Forget Me" – Encounters with Migrant Domestic Workers in Jordan

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Nov 6 2012

Though Jordan ostensibly offers migrant domestic workers greater labor rights than most nations in the region, inequity and exploitation remain a chronic reality for many workers. In 2011, the Tamkeen Center's report “Domestic Plight: How Jordanian Laws, Officials, Employers, and Recruiters Fail Abused Migrant Domestic Workers" detailed the struggles workers continue to face in the absence of enforcement and regulation. For example, though legislation imposes a maximum 10 hour work day, a weekly day off, and paid sick leave, the decentralized nature of the sponsorship system inhibits significant enforcement of such requirements. Furthermore, Jordan's legal code still lacks important protections for workers; the parliament has yet to ratify the International Labor Organizations's Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, which establishes a basic framework for domestic worker rights. While Jordan is a signatory of the convention, its failure to commit to these standards through codification sustains the disparity between domestic worker and employer rights. This persisting legal inequality is egregiously evinced in that domestic workers are still denied freedom of employment, and workers who abscond from abusive employers continue to face legal penalties.

The photographic collection above serves as a visual representation of the ways in which some Indonesian domestic workers network and spend time outside of their labor. The collection's author, Fulbright fellow Elizabeth Kim, graciously shares her experiences with us below. Elizabeth can be contacted at e.kim@aya.yale.edu.

Migrant-Rights (MR): How did you come to be involved in your research?

Elizabeth (E): When I first came to Jordan on a university study abroad program in 2010, I was largely unaware of the socio-economic, racial, and gender discrimination of migrant domestic workers in the country and the region. I also never imagined the extent to which I might be discriminated against -- not just as a foreigner but in particular, as a young, single, Asian woman.

My Jordanian host family did not employ a domestic worker, but several of my peers' host families did. I began to hear stories of verbal and emotional abuse of some of the workers in the host families' homes. Then I briefly researched the issue on my own and learned of widespread abuses. One day, an American friend introduced me to her host family's domestic worker, and the stories that the young woman, Leitha, shared burdened my heart and compelled me to explore the issue further.

At times while living in Amman, I was frustrated by the verbal harassment and assumptions of Jordanian passersby, taxi drivers, and friends of friends that I was a domestic worker or prostitute because of my Asianness and my femaleness; but at least I was protected. My American nationality, network of foreign friends and contacts, educational background, English language ability, and financial security all afforded me protections that many migrant domestic workers could not rely on. I wondered how women like Leitha could ascertain and exercise their rights in the context of the kafala labor system, legal barriers, the wasta culture, and other structures in place. And I wondered how the women formed networks and communities.

After graduating from university, I returned to Jordan on the Fulbright Program to seek answers to these questions.

MR: What issues predominated your conversations?

E: I focused on the labor histories of Indonesian women who had come to Jordan for the purposes of domestic work but had run away from their employers mostly because of unpaid or underpaid wages; overwork; and physical, emotional, or verbal abuse.

In the last photo of this album, you can see writing on the wall that says "Don't Forget Me." The 20 year-old woman who wrote this is named R, though she often uses the alias "Sara." R. had written out her real, Indonesian name on the other end of the wall, so she could look at it every day... almost as if she were afraid of forgetting her identity.

I would like to share a little bit of R.'s story. Although R.'s story is her own and thus unique, the labor violations and physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual burdens she conveys echoed throughout the stories of the other Indonesian women I met.

R. told me of how she had been orphaned as an infant and raised in rural Java, Indonesia. R. finished schooling at age 13, worked at a restaurant in Jakarta by age 14, and worked in Dubai from ages 15-18 as a domestic worker. Soon thereafter, she went to Jordan.

At her Jordanian employers' home, R. worked for 5 months in a villa where she began each day at 5am and finished at 12am, no days off. She weighed 65kg. when she entered Jordan in 2009 and due to a lack of food, dropped to 50kg in that 5 months. R. was not allowed to use the phone to call her recruitment agency or family for help, and she only received one month's worth of salary which was less than the original amount indicated in the work contract. R.'s employers also did not give her permission to set one foot outside of the house, so she was confined indoors basically 24 hours a day.

Like a few other women I spoke with, R. tried to commit suicide by overdosing on medicine. During the interview, R. said, "I took a bucket of panadol - red, blue, and drank everything. But nothing happened. I just sat for five minutes, and then blood came up again. I took another cup of piff puff and drank it. Then, I threw up. But I didn't die. WHY?! Why didn't I die? I said, God, why isn't there death?"

Later, R. was taken to the recruitment agency by her employer and falsely accused of breaking a chandelier. R. said:  "I told them I didn't break this. I said mama, you broke this. I was in the kitchen. You're the one who broke it. Then she said, 'You bitch, you animal.' She was angry at me. So I asked the recruitment agent if he had a Qur'an. He said yes. I asked him to give it to me. Then I put my had on the Qur'an and said, 'Madam, I swear to God that I did not break the chandelier, and if I did, let God strike me down here and now.' Nothing happened. So I passed the Qur'an to my employer and asked her to put her hand on it and swear that I broke it. She would not touch the Qur'an."

R. talked about how she tried to commit suicide again by slitting her wrist. Then she revealed how she escaped from her employer's home and came to work at the small convenience store in downtown Amman.

R. also shared in detail about the relationship she had with her Jordanian partner. Many Indonesian domestic workers spoke of having Jordanian, Egyptian, or South Asian migrant worker "boyfriends," or male partners. While the women and men entered into these relationships out of restlessness, attraction, love, financial dependency, or a sense of protection in a very wasta-driven and male-authoritative environment, many Indonesian women said that all the men "play games". Oftentimes having escaped an exploitative work and living situation, the women found themselves in yet another abusive and controlling relationship. So many women echoed the sentiment expressed by another Indonesian domestic worker named W.:  "Saya sepertiburung dikurung [I am like a bird in a cage.].”

MR: Do you intend to continue your research and return to the region?

E: I am working on an article and one more project related to the research I conducted in Jordan through Fulbright. I would love to return to the region in the near future and hope to continue engaging in issues related to women and migrants' rights and anti-human trafficking, particularly in the context of the Middle East and East and Southeast Asia.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East