Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sitting in the Office...

I am sitting in the office, surfing the web for international conventions on the rights of migrant workers. I look up, and see a small, frail domestic worker (I believe she is from Indonesia), showing one of the attorneys who work in our office her bruises and injuries from a recent beating she received from her employer. She just removed her hat; the attorney is taking pictures of cuts she has on her head. She unbuttoned her over shirt, and now they are taking pictures of her beaten shoulders, her cut cheek, and other bruises on her face. She turns and looks at me while they are taking pictures of her injured ear. Her face is swollen both from the beating and crying. She tells the attorney that 'Mama beats her every day.' She has been here for 8 months.  Her hair is cut very short... Even though it is considered shameful for a woman to cut her long hair in Indonesian culture, Jordanian employers often force their domestic workers to cut their hair against their will. This woman's passport was taken and held by her employer. This is a common occurrence among domestic workers; the employers hold control over them when they seize their worker's passport. The worker cannot travel without it. This tiny woman looks like a broken doll. The attorney tells her not to be afraid. The worker begins miming what her employers have done to her. She grabs a water glass and pretends to smash with over her head. She pretends to fall, and then mimes being kicked while she is down. She tells the attorney she is not paid her salary. She keeps pointing to different objects, and mimes being hit over and over again, on her head, her shoulder, kicked over and over again, on her ribs and legs.... She says that 'Mama' beats her with cords around her waist....

Earlier this morning, I went with my fellow American volunteers to a neighborhood on the outskirts of Amman to interview more Egyptian Migrant workers. I became angrier and angrier throughout the morning because Jordanians kept coming up to our street interviews, interrupting the Egyptian workers, and threatening them. One Jordanian man even took a video of the Egyptians we were talking with and told us he was going to turn the video in to the Muhabarat (secret police). He told us that he was angry because Jordan is 'hosting these workers. They should not be saying these bad things about my country.' He apparently assumed that since Jordan was giving them work opportunities, they should not criticize the terrible treatment they receive during their employment. We had one Egyptian worker tell all the others not to tell us anything, to only say good things. He was clearly scared. He went up to a male American volunteer towards the end of our discussion with the group of Egyptians and began to cry. "I received a diploma," he told my other researcher. "I am highly educated, and I am here begging in the streets for jobs. The conditions here are so bad that it would be better to die than to have to work in them. But the conditions here are still better than in Egypt."

I feel like many people (no matter if they are American, Jordanian, or from any other nationality) often forget that migrant workers are the back bone of society. Because they generally tend to perform the menial jobs in society that no one else wants to do, they fade into the background; they are not considered as human beings, but rather as inanimate objects that perform necessary functions for the more valuable human beings. Many Jordanians treat migrant workers as they would treat the plate they eat from, or the chair they sit on. This approach to Migrant workers likewise desensitizes Jordanians; if a plate breaks, an owner shrugs and buys a new one. If a Migrant worker is injured on the job, the employer shrugs and picks up a new one. Many Jordanians likewise expect that migrant workers act like a plate or a chair; to be silent, complacent, and simply perform the function they are meant to perform. Migrant workers should not complain! We are giving them jobs!

What many do not realize is that the treatment an employer needs to afford a Migrant worker is no where near the same as the treatment an owner gives a chair he sits on. Unlike a plate or a chair, a Migrant worker has a life filled with experience, a family he/she needs to support; a Migrant worker has opinions, has beliefs, has faith. Migrant workers, no matter where they are from or what work they perform, are people.  We need to start listening to what migrant workers have to say. We need to make sure they have a voice.

Monday, July 16, 2012


I would first like to apologize for not having blogged in the past few weeks! My life has been insanely busy with my internship as well as other activities, and I plan to provide a very extensive update below!

For the past two weeks my fellow volunteers and I have put our research project on the state of Egyptian migrant workes in Jordan on hold - Tamkeen had to release its Quarterly, Midterm, and Third Annual report in quick succession, and so the past weeks have been a whirl wind of data compilation, language translation, graph creation, and editing of both the English and Arabic versions of the various reports. What compiling these reports has shown me is just how pervasive rights violations against domestic and migrant workers are in Jordan. One of the biggest problems facing migrant workers here is the inability (or unwillingness) of the Ministry of Labor, the Public Security Department, and the Judiciary to enforce the actual legislation in place that provides protection to migrant workers. This legislative gap locks migrant workers into a perpetual state of victimization, and makes it extremely difficult for non-governmental organizations to build and develop the infastructure necessary to actually implement the inalienable rights guaranteed to migrant workers through the international and regional human rights conventions that Jordan has adopted and incorporated into their national law.

However, at the beginning of this week, myself and my fellow volunteers have resumed our research project. So far we have interviewed men and women from different sectors in society that hold a stake in the state of Egyptian migrant workers in Jordan; I cannot mention the specific agencies and organizations from which these men and women are from because they requested to remain anonymous. I can assure you however that those who we have interviewed have experience in many different areas regarding migrant workers. What has been the most frustrating with these interviews in particular has been the interviewees polishing their words and speaking in euphamisms. Just yesterday we interviewed a man who continually kept talking about the experience of a slim (and when I say slim, I mean less than one or two percent) number of Egyptian migrant workers in Jordan. This minority, he told us, was accepted by all, treated equal by all... he also told us that Egyptian migrant workers experience no exploitation here in Jordan. The information he spoon fed us was contrary to all the information we had received up to this point, contrary even to our observation of Egyptian migrant workers on the street. The worse part was the fact that this man was a human rights legislative consultant.

This consultant's unwillingness to discuss the reality of Egyptian migrant workers speaks to a larger problem facing not only migrant workers in general, but the non-governmental organizations trying to give them a voice and fight for their protection. The way Jodanian labor law with respect to migrant workers is written, as well as the common practices of the employers, Public Security officers, and governmental employees create and environment in which migrant workers easily fall prey to forced labor and human trafficking. For example, Jordanian law states that if a migrant worker leaves his/her work (i.e. quits his/her job), the employer can file a 'police notification of absconding from the workplace,' and the police will then track down and either arrest the worker or force them back into their old job. This, in every sense of the word, is slavery. Not only does it put a huge amount of power in the hands of the employer and steals away one of the only ways a migrant worker to protect himself or herself from exploitation and victimization (i.e. protect himself/herself by leaving the abusive working environment), but it also discriminates against migrant workers simply because of their nationality; if a Jordanian worker leaves his or her job, he/she is not arrested or forced back into employment.

This is one of many systemic examples of human trafficking, forced labor, and modern slavery inherent in the Jordanian legal system. However, rather than acknowledge the breadthe and depth of this very serious problem, the Jordanian government is choosing to pretend as if it does not happen; for them, it is easier and more beneficial to let this pervasive exploitation grow and thrive. This government mentality had directly affected the work of  Tamkeen as well. Tamkeen tries to raise awareness about this issue of human trafficking; they want all sectors of society to recognize it so that it can be directly address and resolved. However, this stands in direct opposition to the government's desire to claim that human trafficking does not exist in Jordan; as such, the government has recently denied Tamkeen's ability to receive funding from anyone, including international organizations. The government told Tamkeen that they should change the scope of their work so that it does not focus on migrant workers. Tamkeen should try to help Jordanians. While Jordanians do face many problems that do need to be addressed, the fact that the government is blatantly trying to marginalized and dehumanize the plight of migrant workers by making them a non-issue absolutely shocked me. It shocked us all.

As part of our research we have also started talking with Egyptian migrant workers themselves. Today we went to the down town area of Amman and spoke with several Egyptian men who are currently working in Jordan. What was most surprising to me was the fact that all of these men we talked with had been living in Jordan for more than eight years; they all were married and had families back in Jordan. All of the men we spoke to were irregular (illegal workers). A migrant worker is considered 'irregular' when they begin to work in a different sector or for a different employer than the one specified on their working permit. If a worker is caught working in a job different than the one listed on his permit, he will be arrested and deported. This inability for workers to change sectors is like wise a huge problem for migrant workers, especially since the illegal brokers who bring workers from Egypt tell the workers that they can work in any sector they wish.
Besides my work at Tamkeen, I have become involved with a local news agency as an amateur photographer. I recently accompanied two journalists to Atorra, a village that lies on the border between Syria and Jordan. We went to interview Syrian families who had recently smuggled themselves over the border into Jordan. The experiences that we heard were absolutely heart breaking. Many Syrians refused to let us take pictures of them, even to know their names, because they were afraid that if the government saw that they had spoken out, the government would target and kill their families back in Syria. Many told us of lost loved ones; a girl who was no older than sixteen but appeared to have aged a lifetime told us in a very solmn voice devoid of any emotion about her friend who had been raped and killed in front of her mother and father. We were shown several video recordings of the aftermath of government invasions of villages; we were told that Homs, a city where violence is at its peak, has maybe one family living in every ten houses. The other families left because the bodies of their fellow Syrians were being buried in the empty houses, making the entire city reek of death.

As terrible as these experiences were, what was heartwarming was how the Jordanians living in Atorra came together and accepted the Syrian refugees without question into their communities. These Jordanians told us that Syrians were their brothers, they were no different than Jordanians. On top of this regional community bond reminiscent of pan-Arab solidarity was the fact that these Jordanians were pullign from their own pockets to provide homes, food, and basic amenities to these Syrians. Our guide was a wonderful Jordanian man who ran a charity for Syrian refugees in the village; in every single family we met with, he handed 20 JD to the children to give to their parents. He told us that the whole village will keep supporting these refugees; however, their resources are wearing thin, especially as more and more families (reaching the thousands) cross the border every night. The people of Atorra are very worried especially because Ramadan is quickly approaching, which will even put a greater toll on the resources they are able to give to Syrians who cross the border. If you would like to read more about our experience, here is the article the journalists I accompanied wrote... The featured picture is one I took. For more pictures, see that pictures page of this blog.

On top of this, I have been trying to travel outside of Amman on the weekends to see what the rest of the country is like; tourists, expats, and Jordanians often get stuck in the 'Amman bubble' and do not get to see or experience all of the other beautiful places in the country. This last weekend I traveled to Umm Qais, a village on the Jordanian border with the Golan Heights. Umm Qais is an absolutely breathtaking village nestled in rolling mountains and hills covered in olive trees and other forms of vegetation. It also has amazing ruins that overlook the Sea of Galilee. I posted pictures of Umm Qais on the picture page of this blog... make sure to check them out!

Also, as a side note, Linda AlKhabash, the director of Tamkeen, was quoted in a recently released Jordan Times article talking about why domestic workers still flee. To read the article posted in the Jordan Times, click here.