(Munich) - Jordan should immediately allow 24 Sri Lankan former domestic workers, many of whom were allegedly abused by their employers, to return home, Human Rights Watch said today. The workers have been stranded in Amman since January 2011, unable to pay government-imposed fines and threatened with eviction.
Article 12.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which became domestic Jordanian law in 2006, guarantees the right to leave any country, a right which these Sri Lankans have been unjustifiably denied as a result of Jordan's system of fining people for overstaying their residency, Human Rights Watch said. The migrant domestic workers were not responsible for falling out of documented residency status, had no means to rectify their situation, and are too poor to pay the fines.
"Jordan is in effect punishing these workers for escaping abusive households by piling on daily fines that prevent them from returning to their families," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Meanwhile, the employers, who abused the women and, as the law requires, should pay the fines, go unpunished."
On January 24, 37 Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers who had sought shelter at the Sri Lankan embassy left in protest at being confined there and at what they said was embassy inaction in facilitating their return home. The workers had been in Jordan for between 2 and 11 years. They had spent between a few months and more than a year-and-a-half in the embassy shelter waiting to go home, after leaving the households where they were employed. Some have since been deported or returned home after charitable payments of their fines, but 24 remain in Jordan.
The reasons the workers had fled their workplaces included non-payment of salaries, refusal by the employer or recruitment agency to buy them a required ticket to return home, beatings, or overwork. Human Rights Watch interviewed some of the workers in January and has received detailed case information from Tamkeen, a Jordanian nongovernmental organization that helps migrant domestic workers and serves as their legal representative.
Asiya Umma Noordeen, for example, told Tamkeen that she had worked for 11 years without pay before fleeing to the embassy on September 14, 2010. She cannot return to Sri Lanka because her employers never applied on her behalf for the residency and work permits required by law, so she has incurred thousands of Jordanian dinars in fines.
Foreigners in Jordan without a valid residency permit are subject to a fine of 1.5 Jordanian dinars (US$2.10) per day, which they must pay before being allowed to leave the country. According to the unified standard employment contract for domestic workers and a 2009 Labor Ministry regulation, the employer is responsible for applying for the worker's permits, and for paying the fines if he or she failed to do so. The employer is also responsible if the worker leaves because she was not paid, or if the employer failed to provide her a ticket home after she has completed two years of work and subsequently fell out of status.
Nevertheless, the Interior Ministry's Residency and Foreigners' Affairs Department has failed to hold to account employers who failed to pay the fines, Human Rights Watch said, based on an investigation into the cases of the 37 Sri Lankan workers and other research into the situation of migrant domestic workers in Jordan over the past two years.
Instead of allowing a foreign worker to leave Jordan while it pursues the negligent employer, the ministry prevents the worker from leaving. The passport control office at the border does not allow persons with visa overstayer fines to pass, as happened in other such cases that Human Rights Watch has investigated. Noordeen's employers have told Tamkeen that they cannot pay the fines and that they are hoping for a government waiver. Meanwhile, Noordeen remains unable to leave Jordan.
The government also is not holding recruitment agencies that exploited domestic workers to account, Human Rights Watch said. In another case among the 24, W.M. Sudarma Sepali's employers prepared to send her back to Sri Lanka after she finished her two-year contract and because they were moving to Qatar. The employers gave her money for the ticket home and her passport, and dropped her off with her luggage at the agency. Sepali told Tamkeen that the agency did not send her home, but instead obliged her to work part-time in a number of houses, before she fled to the embassy in August 2010. She has accumulated fines since she arrived at the embassy and cannot afford to pay them and so cannot return home.
In a similar case, Santha Malika's employers returned her to the agency with her passport, money for the return ticket, and money to pay her existing fines, which she had incurred because the family had never obtained a residency permit for her. Malika came to Jordan on August 13, 2008, and had worked more than the two years the contract requires to earn a free ticket home. But the agency made her work part-time instead of letting her return home, and she went to the embassy on November 3, 2010.
In July 2010, Jordan convened a migrant domestic worker committee in the Labor Ministry, composed of representatives from all concerned government agencies, including the Interior Ministry, embassies of the sending countries, recruitment agencies, and the National Center for Human Rights, a statutory but independent rights body. Despite being fully apprised since January of the situation for the Sri Lankan workers who had left the embassy, the committee has been unable to resolve a single case, Tamkeen told Human Rights Watch.
"The Labor and Interior Ministry officials are failing in their duties under Jordanian law and toward these Sri Lankan workers," Wilcke said. "They should immediately waive any responsibility for these fines for the domestic workers and vigorously pursue the actual law breakers."
Human Rights Watch, on January 27, wrote to Samir al-Rifai, then Jordan's prime minister, urging him to exempt the workers from overstayer fines immediately and unconditionally. Jordan announced on March 15 that it would exempt migrant domestic workers only from 50 percent of the fines.
In its letter, Human Rights Watch also reminded Jordan that as long as the workers remain in the kingdom, the state is responsible for ensuring that they have access to adequate shelter under article 11.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Jordan is a party. The workers have remained for most of the past two-and-a-half months with an acquaintance in a two-room apartment, but their landlord told Human Rights Watch on April 7 that he would ask them to leave because neighbors had complained. They had no other place to go, and Jordan has no government-run shelters.
"The government has a duty to ensure that these women have access to adequate housing, at its own expense if necessary," Wilcke said.