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Jordanian Justice System, Officials Facilitate Exploitation of Agricultural Migrant Workers

On December 30, 2014

Exploitative employers enjoy impunity as existing anti-trafficking and forced labor laws are poorly enforced.

The 7-month plight of Alaa and Mostafa, two Egyptian agricultural workers, began as soon as the two arrived in Jordan. Their employer confiscated their passports and coerced them to sign a document falsifying debt owed to him. They then joined three other migrant workers in a small 4x4 meter room with no kitchen or bathroom. They slept on the floor and in winter, burned wood to stay warm. The room provided no insulation against the elements and no protection from snakes and insects.

But Mostafa was most shocked when the farm owner refused to provide them with clean water, forcing them to drink from an old well contaminated with filth.

They worked 12-hour shifts everyday, and their meals - small portions of cheap food – were deducted from their salaries. After 7 months of nonpayment, the workers complained to the mayor. Though the financial dispute was their main motivation for filing a complaint, Mostafa added that the threats, abuse, and insults they endured also encouraged them to seek assistance from officials.

The employer claimed the workers owed him money, pointing to the falsified debt receipt he forced them to sign upon arrival.

The mayor transferred the workers to a detention center before taking their case to the public prosecutor. The workers withdrew their complaint in exchange for the payment of their salaries, a release from the employer, and the retrieval of the falsified debt receipt. Because the complaint was withdrawn, the employer paid no legal penalty.

Manipulating Workers' Cases

The Tamkeen Center has filed several cases on behalf of agriculture workers but none have yet resulted in an indictment for human trafficking. These cases are usually treated as labor disputes despite national laws that recognize these abuses as trafficking.

One case filed by Tamkeen involved 8 laborers detained in a North Shuna farm (100 Kilos away from Amman).  They were unpaid, constantly assaulted and denied access to their passports. The workers testified that their employer “threatened them with a gun to work up to 15 hours every day” and “had insulted God when verbally abusing them.”

The workers were recruited through the Egyptian agriculture ministry. They received one-year contracts to work for 200 dinars monthly (280 USD). Agriculture workers are supposedly protected by labor laws that specify a maximum 8 hours work day with breaks, a paid day off every week, paid overtime, and paid annual and sick leave. But the workers were only irregularly paid 60 dinars and punished when they requested their full payment.

After three months of unpaid work, the workers demanded their passports.

The employer refused and later did not renew their working permits, forcing them into an irregular status. Aside from putting the workers at risk of detention, their ‘illegal’ status resulted in the loss of an insurance deposit of 175 dinars (250 USD) paid by all workers upon arrival in Jordan.

Another worker said he and his colleagues decided to file a complaint due to daily physical and verbal abuse.

He threatened us with his gun to steal water from nearby ponds at night.

The workers caught diseases because of cold weather and were denied medical treatment. The Tamkeen center holds that these violations, including the confiscation of passports, are indicators of human trafficking according to both local and international law.

Article three of the anti-trafficking law issued in 2009 reads: “trafficking crimes include recruiting, transferring, sheltering, or receiving workers for the goal of exploiting them, under threat or use of force. Through kidnapping, fraud, deception, or use of power, exploiting vulnerability, or exchanging money to gain power over victims.  Recruiting, transferring, sheltering, or receiving persons who are under 18-year-old for exploitation, even without the use of force, is also considered a crime of human trafficking.”

The law defines exploitation as “exploiting people to work forcibly, to enslave them, extract their organs, prostitution, or in any form of sexual exploitation.”

After two years in courts, the case received a verdict three months ago. The judge decided to turn the case into a case of “harm, verbal abuse, and insulting god.” The employer was only made to pay a fine and 4000 dinars (5714 USD) in legal fees.

Linda Kalash, director of the Tamkeen center, said the prosecution of human trafficking cases in Jordan is always slow, reflecting the careless attitude of authorities toward combatting these crimes. She said the legal process needs reform, the first steps including the establishment of shelters for trafficking victims and providing migrants with temporary work permits until cases are resolved. She added that Jordan needs to apply international standards to local laws and their enforcement.

Employers come first

The exclusion of agricultural workers from Jordan’s labor law facilitates their exploitation. Though the Kingdom announced a draft labor law for agricultural workers in 2008, the ministry seems unlikely to follow through anytime soon due to “the high costs of such law on employers.” A confidential source at the ministry told that there are “many attempts to stop the agriculture workers' law from getting finalized” although the ministry has agreed to issue it as per recommendations from the International Labor Organization. In response to media queries about the law, Wisam al-Rimawi from the directorate of Amman city, held “it needs some thinking, because it will add costs on employers.”

Another official from the labor ministry, Ibrahim al-Saudi, said “we fear the high costs of such law on employers. It would increase the cost of production, and therefore the ministry is trying to study the situation with the farmers' union, the agriculture ministry, and all relevant establishments.” Migration advocates in Jordan criticized authorities for failing to execute critical promises and plans.  After voting for the forced labor protocol of the International Labor Organization two months ago, Jordan is obligated to make serious steps to stop forced labor affecting many agriculture workers.

Another Tameken center report found dangerous rights violations systematically committed against farming workers, including trafficking and forced labor. The report observered that migrants work between 10 to 12 hours daily, up to 16 in extreme case, and are paid a quarter of their Jordanian compatriots. Some workers live in plastic homes, tents, or rooms smaller than 20 meters shared by several workers. In these hazardous and unhygienic conditions, many have no access to clean water and electricity. It is estimated that thousands of the industry’s workers at risk for exploitation.

Kalash added that abuse in the agricultural sector has escalated with the influx of Syrian refugees in the past two years.  The farming sector has increasingly relied on these distraught families to fill the labor gap left by Egyptian workers abandoning exploitative employers.

According to statistics from the Jordanian Ministry of Labor, 68% of documented agriculture workers are migrants. 97% of these workers are Egyptian migrants. In 2011, 99.5% of regulated agriculture workers were men and only 398 were women, mostly from Pakistan.