Filipino domestic workers seeking refuge from abusive employers sit in the basement of their embassy’s shelter in Amman, Jordan on October 6, 2008.

© 2008 Nader Daoud/AP

(Amman) – Jordan needs to enforce the legal protections for migrant domestic workers it has put in place over the past three years, Human Rights Watch and the Tamkeen Center for Legal Aid said in a joint report issued today. New laws and regulations since 2008 give domestic workers the right to regulated working hours and a weekly day off, and criminalize people trafficking, but enforcement remains negligible, the organizations said.

The 111-page report, “Domestic Plight: How Jordanian Laws, Officials, Employers, and Recruiters Fail Abused Migrant Domestic Workers,” documents abuses against domestic workers and the failure of Jordanian officials to hold employers and the agents who recruited the workers accountable. The report also criticizes Jordanian immigration and domestic work labor laws for facilitating abuse, such as confinement in the home and imposing fines for overstaying the legal residency period, even where the worker is not at fault.

“Jordan’s legal reforms aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if they don’t make a difference in the lives of migrant domestic workers,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If Jordan wants to remain a regional leader in protecting domestic worker rights, it should muster the political will to enforce its own rules.”

Many of the 70,000 migrant domestic workers from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines now living in Jordan face the same abuses as migrant domestic workers elsewhere in the region. These include beatings, confiscation of passports, confinement to the house, insults, non-payment of salaries, and overlong working hours with no days off.

In 2003 Jordan became the first Arab country to use a Unified Standard Contract for domestic workers, and in 2008 it included domestic workers under its labor law. In 2009, it issued regulations specifying labor protections, such as a maximum of 10 hours of work per day, a minimum of eight hours of continuous rest each day, a weekly day of rest, and regular salary payments. In 2009 Jordan also passed a law against people trafficking that criminalizes forced labor for exploitation.

The reasons these abuses persist is the weak enforcement of existing legal rights and omissions and provisions in the law that facilitate abuse, the organizations said. These fall short of the standards set by a landmark international treaty to protect domestic workers’ rights adopted in June 2011. Jordan voted for, but has not ratified, the ILO Convention on Domestic Work, which obliges governments to ensure decent working conditions and protection from violence for domestic workers, and mandates compliance with national laws protecting them.

Disempowerment of domestic workers starts in their home countries, where unscrupulous recruitment agents deceive them with false promises of easy work and high salaries. The problems continue in Jordan, where recruitment agents fail to provide copies of contracts and confiscate workers’ passports, and employers lock them inside the house to prohibit them from communicating with the outside world. Jordan has no shelter for domestic workers who escape, leaving them with nowhere to turn for help.

Jordanian law still permits an employer to restrict a domestic worker’s movements, forcing the worker to stay in the employer’s house. The law does not require allowing the worker to retain all of her documents, including passports and contracts. Jordan also does not allow domestic workers to change employers freely, even after the contract period has ended. Jordan imposes fines on those who are in Jordan without a valid residency permit, which only an employer can apply for, but often does not. Police detain domestic workers whose employers registered them as “escaped,” even when the worker had a valid residency permit.

Weak enforcement of existing rules means domestic workers sometimes forfeit rights, such as unpaid salaries, in exchange for the ability to return home. The Labor Ministry has only five inspectors for all domestic workers, but they have not exercised their authority to enter the homes to follow up claims of domestic worker abuse. A labor dispute committee for domestic workers follows no clear guidelines and takes months to issue non-binding recommendations for cases of complaints by domestic workers. Inspectors have not reported as violations of the law cases of overlong working hours – on average 16 hours per day among those workers interviewed for the report – or failing to grant a day off, let alone fined employers for what are widely reported practices.

Forcing a domestic worker to work beyond her two-year contract, or locking her in the home while not paying her, may amount to forced labor, defined in international law as labor extracted involuntarily under the menace of penalty. The inability to change employers freely or return home due to the criminalization of escape, immigration fines, and the confiscation of passports would constitute such a threat, Human Rights Watch and Tamkeen said.

Forced labor coupled with economic exploitation – for example nonpayment of wages – constitutes trafficking under Jordanian law. Yet investigators in the anti-trafficking department as well as prosecutors have not classified more than a handful of cases as trafficking, despite numerous and extensive case files submitted by lawyers for Tamkeen.

One Indonesian worker was locked up for more than three years without pay because her employers, who had taken her passport, did not allow her to go back to her country. She escaped when the employers left the key in the lock one day, but prosecutors did not consider her a victim of trafficking.

“We have repeatedly presented the anti-trafficking investigators with domestic workers who had suffered a range of abuses, sending lawyers and interpreters with them, but the investigators did not classify them as victims of trafficking, and in some cases even detained the workers for escape,” said Linda al-Kalash, director of Tamkeen. “Government actions – and sometimes inaction – further victimize women who have suffered tremendously, instead of helping them.”

Employers confiscate passports, lock domestic workers in the house, and fail to pay their full salaries on time in part because they fear that the worker may leave for higher salaries in the informal labor market. Better enforcement of existing rules and legal reform of the sector could reduce demand in the informal labor market for domestic work and help prevent these abuses, the report finds.

The report also looks at the role of governments in the domestic workers’ countries of origin, and finds that the bans Indonesia and the Philippines have imposed on its citizens working in Jordan have not contributed to their protection. Instead, the sending governments should focus on better regulating and monitoring recruitment agencies in their own countries, Human Rights Watch and Tamkeen said.

“Jordan should quickly ratify the groundbreaking ILO treaty on domestic workers’ rights and bring itself into full compliance,” Wilcke said. “Jordan has been considered a regional leader in introducing reforms; now it should work toward earning that distinction for implementing them.”