Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
October 12, 2011

The fate of millions of migrant workers in the Middle East has been all but forgotten amid the Arab Spring. Migrant domestic workers, the nannies and housekeepers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia, desperately need another revolution.

These women provide valuable domestic services that are in high demand. Yet they remain excluded from labor laws that provide basic protections -- as basic as a weekly day of rest. And they are subject to an immigration sponsorship system that makes it difficult to escape abusive employers -- escapes that the authorities sometimes treat as a crime.

Take the case of Marjorie L., a Filipina woman, whose employer made her work long hours for no pay and locked her inside the house before "loaning" Marjorie against her will to a friend across town for several months. She was not paid there either. She eventually escaped, but then faced detention by the authorities and was unable to return home.

Jordan is an exception, in a good sense. It is the only Arab country to include domestic workers under its labor laws, and does not formally use a sponsorship system. Since 2008 it has introduced regulations on the rights and duties of domestic workers, employers, and recruitment agencies.

But while Jordan's legal protections outstrip those offered by its neighbors, the situation on the ground looks depressingly similar to those in less-regulated countries. A new report by Human Rights Watch and the Amman-based Tamkeen Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights, Domestic Plight: "How Jordanian Laws, Officials, Employers, and Recruiters Fail Abused Migrant Domestic Workers," shows that migrant domestic workers in Jordan often face the same type of abuses as they do elsewhere, including beatings, confiscation of passports, confinement to the house, insults, non-payment of salaries, and overlong working hours with no days off.

Jordan's laws and regulations are only part of the problem. While Jordanian officials now have the tools to prevent and respond to abuses, they have lacked sufficient political will and coordination to use them.

There are five main areas they could tackle to start. First, all employers and domestic workers should know their legal rights and obligations. Many domestic workers have been cheated and deceived in their home countries and are unfamiliar with Jordan's culture and laws. The government should make sure domestic workers have a copy of their contract and receive an orientation upon arrival about where to get help.

Second, non-payment of salaries is a frequent complaint. This is particularly heartbreaking for the women who made the sacrifice to leave their own families in the hopes of earning desperately needed money. The Labor Ministry set up a domestic workers' committee in 2010 to resolve salary disputes, but decisions often take months. The ministry should prioritize implementation of a 2011 ministerial decision obliging employers to pay domestic workers' salaries into bank accounts, which will make it harder to cheat workers out of their wages, and easier to resolve salary claims quickly and fairly.

Third, the ministry's five labor inspectors for domestic work rarely use their legal authority to visit homes. Inspectors told Human Rights Watch that they had never used their power to fine employers who require domestic workers to work seven days a week without rest for 16 hours a day (what we found was common as we prepared our report), even though the inspectors know the circumstances. The ministry should increase the number of inspectors and evaluate their performance on rigorous enforcement of the law. And Jordanian prosecutors should investigate cases involving domestic workers that amount to forced labor or trafficking under the 2009 trafficking law.

Fourth, Jordan should change the 2009 Labor Ministry regulation and provision in the standard contract that prohibits a worker from leaving the home without her employer's consent, even after working hours. In addition to denying a basic freedom, confinement in the home traps domestic workers and facilitates abuse.

Finally, Jordan needs to make it easier for these women to return home. Domestic workers who escape such abuse typically return to their recruitment agencies or embassies, or start working in the informal labor market. Their passports are often held by their former employers.

In many cases, the escaped worker overstayed her legal residency because the employer never applied for a residency permit, as required under the law. Since Jordanian law imposes fines for overstaying one's residency, these domestic workers accrue huge fines they cannot pay. The law should be amended to hold the employer accountable while allowing the worker to promptly return home.

Jordan has shown itself to be a leader in terms of protection on paper at both home and abroad - in June 2011, Jordan supported a new international labor treaty to protect domestic workers. But the true test of these reforms will be whether Jordan fixes the remaining flaws in its policies and throws its full weight behind meaningful implementation. If so, the improvement in migrant domestic workers' rights would be revolutionary.

*Christoph Wilcke is senior researcher at Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division*