Migrant domestic workers in Jordan run the gauntlet between abuse and jail
They travel from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Kenya, seeking jobs as caretakers, housekeepers and nannies to support their families at home.
Maricel realised too late that the window had locked shut behind her. The 31-year-old Filipina was perched outside a second floor window, blood filling her mouth where two teeth had been smashed out. She had climbed on to the ledge to flee her employer, who had grabbed her hair and bashed her face into a wall, Maricel says.
“It’s so high. I want to go back, but the glass doesn’t open. Madam is close. She is screaming, ‘I kill you now!’” Maricel says. “What can I do? I jumped.”
Maricel had arrived in Jordan three months earlier, one of the country’s 50,000 migrant domestic workers. They travel from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Kenya, seeking jobs as caretakers, housekeepers and nannies to support their families at home.
Many get decent paid work; others are not so lucky. In a 2011 report by Human Rights Watch, half of the migrant domestic workers interviewed said employers or recruitment agency staff had physically or sexually abused them. Others have had their salaries and passports withheld, or live in poor conditions.
In the fall from the window, Maricel fractured her legs and spine but managed to make it to a nearby highway, from where a bus driver helped her to a hospital. After two months in hospital she was transferred by Jordanian public security to the Philippine embassy’s shelter for abused migrants. She pressed charges and her employer was imprisoned in spring 2015.
Maricel couldn’t walk for six months. She has been in the shelter since February 2015, waiting for the legal case to be settled – her employer still has her passport and she will have to pay about 1,000 Jordanian dinars (£1,130) for overstaying her visa. “I just want to go home,” she says.
Abused migrant workers who escape their employers but don’t find shelter with their embassy face imprisonment for being illegal workers. An estimated 37% of migrant domestic workers in Jordan work illegally.
Elizabeth, from Kenya, has been in the Juweida women’s correctional and rehabilitation centre, in the south of Amman, for two weeks. “I ran away because my madam beat me,” she says, pulling her clothes aside to show bruises below her neck. Elizabeth is awaiting deportation but needs to pay her visa overstay fee first.
She shares a cell with 10 other Kenyans and an Ethiopian. Most are runaways; some have been accused of theft. “But they didn’t steal. The madams in Jordan, they will say anything,” Elizabeth says.
Under Jordanian law migrant domestic workers should be deported, not imprisoned, for violating labour or residency regulations, especially when they may be victims of trafficking and abuse, explains Linda al-Kalash, director of Tamkeen Fields for Aid, a legal centre for migrant rights in Jordan.
“There is no article in the residency laws about imprisoning them. There’s nothing about prison for someone who decided to break their work contract.”
Some domestic workers jailed for not paying visa overstay fines end up in detention for years.
Of the 281 migrant worker detainees Tamkeen has interviewed, 55% were held between three weeks and four months, 18% for five to 11 months, and 5% for between one and two years.
Jordanian authorities say they are committed to protecting victims of trafficking. The country passed a counter-trafficking law in 2009 and has two shelters for victims of human trafficking, one run by the government and another by the Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU).
“We put victims in shelter, not prison. We’re committed to stopping trafficking and to protecting these workers as guests,” says Basel al-Tarawneh, the government coordinator on human rights. In 2016, the counter-trafficking unit investigated 30 confirmed cases of human trafficking and sent 196 victims, mostly domestic workers, to shelters. They also exempted 11 trafficked domestic workers from paying visa overstay fines.
But trafficking is narrowly defined in Jordanian law. Many cases of abuse don’t qualify as trafficking, says Kalash, and then the victims go to prison instead of a shelter. “It may not be a trafficking case, but it’s still abuse. There’s no place for labour abuse victims, only prison.”
The labour ministry says migrant workers who abscond must face some kind of penalty.
“We have more than 50,000 maids in Jordan,” says spokesman Mohammad al-Khateeb. “Suppose 10,000 run away. If I arrest 50 or 60 every day, where should I put them?”
Many domestic workers are not victims of abuse, he adds, but run away because they want to make more money. When they become illegal they no longer come under the ministry’s jurisdiction. If migrant workers choose to leave their employer and don’t go through official channels then they have to face the consequences. “We need to have organised, legal labour,” Khateeb says.
Migrant workers who want to change employer must go through a formal procedure overseen by the Ministry of Labour. This is “near impossible” for many migrant workers, says Kalash. “All the power is in the employers’ hands as they must give consent for the worker to change jobs.”
Domestic workers cannot always rely on recruitment agencies for protection either. Martha*, a Kenyan domestic worker, came to Jordan in June 2015 and worked for a year without problems. She tried to change workplaces because her employer wouldn’t cover medical fees when she got sick.
Martha says her agency sent her to different Jordanian employers on short-term contracts, collecting money each time for her residency and work permits. But instead of processing her papers, Martha says, they kept the money and she became an illegal worker, liable for two years of visa overstay charges and with no residency permit.
Martha says she was locked in an office room with other migrant women. “They would close the door at five and leave. After that one of the guys would come back and start molesting me. We were telling God to protect us. It was hell on earth.”
Martha eventually escaped to Tamkeen, which brought her to the JWU shelter. She was afraid to ask for police help, but thankful when authorities later intervened.
“We fear the police,” she says. “Because maybe the employer will say, ‘She stole something’, and they put you in jail.”
After receiving 960 complaints from domestic workers and dealing with 1,402 runaway cases in 2016, the labour ministry says it gave warnings to 27 recruitment agencies for misconduct and shut down eight agencies.
Kalash says that if domestic workers were allowed to change employers and had an official and trusted way to register cases of abuse, absconding cases would fall. “Nobody wants to be irregular. Everyone wants to be safe. You want to feel unafraid, not for anybody to arrest you, hurt you, exploit you – but right now in Jordan there is no chance for this.”
*Name changed to protect identity
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