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Stuck in legal limbo, 'runaway' domestic workers seek a way out

By Rajive Cherian - Nov 26,2017 - Last updated at Nov 26,2017

Illustration courtesy of Abhilash Chacko

AMMAN — Aisha pledged her land, left her three children in Bangladesh and arrived in Jordan in 2012 to work as a domestic worker. After enduring a month of "hardship", she plucked the courage to leave her employer. 

Illegal and uninformed about the legal consequences in store, she muddled through temporary jobs, until she was confined to bed by illness.

According to her medical report, there was no final diagnosis, but her health continued to deteriorate. 

Now under the care of fellow migrant workers, Aisha, 35, not her real name, is awaiting the possibility of an official pardon and deportation.

The issue of migrant workers leaving employers is not uncommon, but once they are met with accidents, illness or any untoward incident, it is a “punishing ordeal”, social workers and activists say.

“My madam’s husband used to beat me, especially whenever I dropped a plate or a kitchen utensil. After one month, my employer returned me to the agency. The firm then sent me to another home, the treatment was bad there too. I only stayed there for two days and finally I left that home,” Aisha said lying in her bed.

Meena, not her real name, another domestic worker from Bangladesh, left her employer because the family “didn’t give me enough food. They also cut my hair”.

“I worked there for two months and left. My passport is with the agency. I don’t have a photocopy of it even. I will wait for an official pardon, or save enough money for my ticket and turn myself in” to labour authorities.  

The Jordan Times was unable to independently verify the allegations from either worker.

Aisha and Meena are among the thousands of illegal domestic workers that toil around behind closed doors.

The estimated number of domestic workers in the Kingdom stands at around 100,000, according to the Domestic Helpers Recruitment Agencies Association (DHRAA). Around 30,000 of these are illegal workers, said Tareq Nooti, the association’s acting president.

 

Crackdown

 

The Labour Ministry is continuing its current crackdown on illegal foreign workers.

“The ministry carries out campaigns to detect illegal workers throughout the year. Any labourer who is caught in violation of the law will be detained and referred to security agencies. Prior to their deportation, it is ensured that all their salaries or any dues are paid in full,” Ministry Spokesperson Mohammad Khatib told The Jordan Times.

In January 2016, the Labour Ministry announced plans for the establishment of a shelter for domestic workers with the aim of resolving issues facing them in Jordan. 

The projected facility was meant to have the capacity to accommodate around 300 residents, while being responsible for protecting them and resolving their problems, whether by sending them back to their countries, finding new employers or rectifying their legal status, the ministry said at the time.

The plan has not materialised so far and the ministry spokesperson stopped short of elaborating on the project when asked.

 

‘Effective’ complaint mechanism

 

Unpaid wages, withholding passport, long working hours, no days off, lack of privacy and ill treatment, mostly verbal, physical, then sexual are among the reasons that force a domestic worker to leave her employer, according to Linda Kalash, executive director of Tamkeen Fields for Aid.

“‘Runaway’ is not the right term. Domestic workers have the right to resign, and if there is any contractual violation, let the courts deal with it. If they are happy in their workplaces, they won’t leave.” 

She noted that in 97 per cent of cases her organisation receive include some kind of abuse, adding that there are incidents, but a few, where the workers are also to blame.

Kalash pointed out the need for an effective complain mechanism as domestic workers have few avenues to file complaints.

The advocate commended the vital role of anti-trafficking unit in detecting cases of abuse. She recalled an incident in which the taskforce rescued a domestic worker just by tracing her phone number.

She also highlighted the importance of orientation programmes. “Domestic workers should be aware of their rights.  Not just told how to operate a machine.”

According to Bangladeshi embassy estimates, there are around 50,000 Bangladeshi domestic workers in Jordan.

The number of Bangladeshi domestic workers leaving their employers tops the list as they constitute the largest number in the sector.

“The embassy is doing everything in its capacity to assist the workers. But there are incidents in which they don’t approach us,” said Mohammad Moniruzzaman, first secretary (Labour) at the embassy.

“We are also helping who are in desperate need to pay their dues, fines and tickets, within our limited budget,” he added.

The diplomat highlighted the importance of strict adherence to health insurance, work and residency permits by the employers.

Moniruzzaman said that the embassy is planning to hold orientation programmes for new workers in cooperation with recruiting agencies in the near future.

 

Effective monitoring

 

“More income, more freedom, late salaries and friend circles, especially in the garment sector” are the reasons many workers leave their employers, Ahmad Al Faouri, board member of the DHRAA said. 

“There are also cases of abuse, but they are limited,” he added.

“In case we get any complaints, we report it to the Labour Ministry, which will summon the employer or the agency; if the case is not resolved, it will be referred to the anti-trafficking department,” Faouri said.

When asked about incidents of withholding passports, which is illegal, Faouri said: “Many workers prefer their documents to be in the safe hands of their employers”.

The Labour Ministry and the anti-trafficking department have intensified their inspections on recruiting agencies, sometimes plainclothes officers also inspect the agencies and if any violation is detected, the agency will be blacklisted, Faouri said.

Awareness programme, giving an ultimatum to rectify legal status and increasing the overstay fines are some of the solutions the association suggests.

There are around 150 licensed domestic worker recruiting agencies in Jordan, according to the association.

 

‘A good Samaritan’

 

Though Aisha is in the care of her friends in the migrant community, a helping hand appeared before her to knock on the doors of officials on behalf of her.

Nibu Varghese, 42, who hails from the southern Indian state of Kerala, has been working in Jordan for the last 12 years in the garment sector. 

Helping sick and/or injured migrant workers without papers has become his calling. He and his friends follow up on the cases with officials and raise funds for the return ticket, including an allowance.

“In Jordan, when you go to the authorities and explain the dire situation, they understand it and follow up the file promptly. We are all humans, they have heart too,” said Nibu, who has so far helped six illegal workers, who were paralysed, burnt or injured in accidents, get back home.

“Sometimes I submit my ID at the hospital as the guarantee. Once I remember, a paralysed illegal worker was kicked out of his home by the landlord in fear of the legal consequences. My friends and I arranged a room for him; and after finishing the paperwork, we raised enough money and sent him home.”

Nibu is busy completing Aisha’s paperwork. “God willing you will reach home soon. You will be fine once you are reunited with children,” he said consoling her during a routine check.

“Kind gestures are often the simplest yet most effective medicine for relieving pain.”

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