News & Blogs

The Maid and the Madame: Rights for Migrant Workers in Jordan

An interview with Linda Alkalash of Daem


AMMAN – “Daem works to protect migrant workers and to combat trafficking in persons, mainly through provision of legal assistance.  We provide legal advice, conduct mediations between workers and employers or recruitment agencies, raise issues to the authorities, and represent people in court.

Jordan has more than one million migrant workers, but only about 290,000 are actually documented.

One of our key strategies for raising legal awareness among domestic workers is bringing them small brochures with information translated into their native languages.  We know that employers and recruitment agencies routinely take papers from domestic workers upon their arrival in Jordan, so we make our brochures small enough that they can be easily hidden.  We coordinate with organizations in migrants’ home countries and sometimes with their embassies in Jordan to provide them with these brochures before they come.  We also cooperate with security officials in Jordan who hand out the brochures in the airport to migrants as they arrive. Sometimes employers ask us for the brochures so they can educate themselves about the rights of domestic workers in Jordan, so we also have versions for them, in Arabic and English. Most often, though, we end up having to turn to litigation to raise awareness among employers.

Raising awareness among employers: the Maid takes the Madame to court

When we receive a complaint from a domestic worker and file a complaint before the court it means of course that the employer has show up in court.  When this happens, word spreads quickly.  The employer has relatives, neighbors and friends, and they find out that ‘the maid took the Madame to the court.’  It sets the tone that the rights of domestic workers must be respected.

In the beginning, we would try to conduct mediations instead of going to court.  But employers made this very difficult.  Once, for example, one of our lawyers called to talk to an employer and introduced herself by saying, “I am the lawyer for Syriani” (a Sri Lankan domestic worker). The employer replied, “Sri Lankan means maid – the Sri Lankan has a lawyer?  How come?”  In the beginning, this was common.

Her employer was holding her at the house, hitting her, and refusing to hand over her passport or salary. This employer had a lot of relationships and was well known. Lots of people asked us to drop the case, but we kept it before the court.

We once got a case involving a Sri Lankan domestic worker whose employer was holding her at the house, hitting her, and refusing to hand over her passport or salary.  The Sri Lankan woman ran away and came to us.  We tried to help by facilitating a mediation between her and her employer, but the employer refused. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan woman just wanted her money and her passport and to be allowed to go back home.   So we filed a complaint against the employer.  The employer asked us to give her release or to delay the case, but we refused.

This employer had a lot of relationships and was well known. Lots of people asked us to drop the case, but we kept it before the court.  Afterward, we heard people talking about it, about how this maid took the Madame to court.

This approach has also been useful with the recruitment agencies.  After we filed cases against two or three of them in the beginning, the rest seemed to try to avoid practices like sexual harassment and physical abuse.  So I think it has had some effect.

Migrant workers in Jordan

Jordan has more than one million migrant workers.  They are of different nationalities and they work in different sectors.  One million is the number you often hear from officials like the Minister of Labor and the Minister of the Interior, but in fact only about 290,000 are actually documented.  Those who are undocumented especially face violations.  Among other difficulties, they can be arrested by the police at any time and placed in prison.

People become undocumented for a variety of reasons. For some it happens because their employer doesn’t issue them labor or residency permits, in other words, they become undocumented because their employer fails to comply with the law.  Some become undocumented because they leave their working place, often as a result of violations they are experiencing.

Of the migrant workers in Jordan, 68% of them are from Egypt.  Egyptians work mainly in the agricultural sector, in construction, in restaurants, or sometimes as cleaners.   We also have migrant workers from South Asia in the garment sector – mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal – working in Qualifying Industrial Zones. The government also recently started to recruit workers from Burma. But the recruitment agency in their home country told them, “Don’t go outside because you are going to a Muslim country and Muslims know what happens in Burma, so they will kill you.” This is how employers manage to keep these workers like slaves. The Burmese workers were afraid to go outside and so they just stayed in their accommodation.

Another major challenge is that many migrant workers don’t receive their full salaries.  Some receive a different amount in practice than what they signed for in their contract.  The withholding of passports is another big problem.  Around ninety percent of migrant workers aren’t in possession of their own passports because their employers are holding them.  Also, by law, migrant workers have the right to a day off and their working hours are not supposed to exceed around 8 hours a day. But there is no implementation of this, no inspection by the Ministry of Labor.

Workers rarely go outside to file a complaint.  Most often they stay in the house despite facing daily violations because they don’t know how to file a complaint or where to go.

Workers rarely go outside to file a complaint.  Most often they stay in the house despite facing daily violations because they don’t know how to file a complaint or where to go.  The Ministry of Labor has a hotline, but it only works from 8 to 3pm.  And you know, most often, domestic workers don’t have their own mobile phones.  Sometimes they can take the Madame’s mobile, or someone else’s, to make the phone call.  But if the hotline receives this call, they will call back, and when they call back of course sometimes the employer will answer the phone.  And this sets the worker up for many problems.

People in Jordan are used to the recruitment of migrant workers.  Jordanians don’t like to work in certain jobs, like cleaning, agriculture and construction, and of course the government works according to what the population wants, so if the population wants to recruit, then the government recruits. There are many, many people that get benefits from this.  Right now in Jordan we have lots of migrants and refugees.  There are many Syrians working in different sectors. They are increasingly facing forced labor because they are refugees and employers try to exploit them.

We have a black market in recruitment and contracts too, don’t forget, especially when it comes to Egyptian workers.  Employers recruit them on the promise that they’ll be free after paying a certain amount of money. Last year, the government issued new regulations regarding the exit and entrance of Egyptian workers so that now if an Egyptian worker wants to go back to Egypt they are required to get permission from their employer first.  But the employers don’t give them this approval, so they stay in Jordan undocumented.  In the garment sector, Jordanian regulations prevent migrant workers from transferring from one employer to another.  So when workers leave or they are fired, they are unable to find another job.  Those whose employers never issued them a residency permit are obligated to pay overstay fines if they want to leave.  And so because they can’t pay, they stay for a long time.  We have many cases of this.

Case study: Stuck in Jordan with no salary and no papers

You know, no matter where you are working, you came to this country for money.  You came to help your family.  If you don’t get your salary, you will stay and wait for it.  You will work year after year after year waiting for your salary.

One woman, a domestic worker who stayed in Jordan for fourteen years without a residency permit, without a labor permit, without receiving her salary.

I remember the case of one woman, a domestic worker who stayed in Jordan for fourteen years without a residency permit, without a labor permit, without receiving her salary. Here, domestic workers have to stay at the house of their employer.  They can’t go out.  They eat at the house.  And all the while they are waiting to receive their salary.  That’s what happened with this woman.

Eventually, she ran away.  She fled to her embassy but they wouldn’t help her. There were 37 domestic workers in the Sri Lankan embassy at one time but no one helped them.  They stayed there for two years without any help until finally they ran away and came to us.  We found shelter for them – we rented out two flats and put them inside.  The Jordanian Women’s Union provided them with food and medical assistance, and we followed up on their cases.

Meanwhile, they continued working at their employers’ houses, some of them for fourteen months some for as many as two years.  All of them had earned a residency permit, which meant they would have to pay if they wanted to go outside and return back.

Finally – because we had a general amnesty in 2011 – this woman went back to her country.  We helped her through mediation and negotiations to get her salary for the past 14 years from her employer. The general amnesty enabled her to go back to her country without paying fines. But she had gone fourteen years without a salary.  Another woman had gone eleven years without a salary and many others had gone at least five years.

Many, many workers suffer from this problem.  Even workers who have the freedom to go outside, like the Egyptians, when they don’t get paid they stay around for many years, waiting for their salary.  Many of these workers become victims of trafficking in persons. It’s a slave’s life. It’s slavery.

Strategic litigation

One of the ways our organization takes strategic action is through strategic litigation.  We don’t just file for the sake of a single case, we take on cases that allow us to defend larger issues related to migrant workers.  When the media covers an issue the day the government implements legislation related to the issue, it helps solve the problem.

It’s a slave’s life. It’s slavery.

We currently have case before the court regarding an Egyptian and an Indian working in the construction sector, both victims of trafficking.  We filed a complaint with the Labor Ministry and didn’t get any response.  So we sent the complaint to the prosecutor and asked him to consider it as a trafficking in persons case.  I also sent a letter to Public Security because the contractor who exploited the worker is responsible for the new Public Security building, and that’s where the violations took place. I sent Public Security a letter informing them that forced labor is being practiced in their new building.

In addition to the letter, we filed a complaint before the court and we asked journalists to cover it.  We achieved two things this way.  First, we congratulated the prosecutor because this is the first case involving the construction sector that has been considered as a case of trafficking in persons.  Second, we encouraged others to do as he did, to take these cases into consideration and to make use of international conventions.  The media is now covering this case and also the issue in general.

Countering biases

Many Jordanians aspire to become employers themselves and so you don’t find much sympathy in public opinion for migrant workers. People aren’t sympathetic to ensuring domestic workers they have a day off, or reasonable working hours, or that migrant workers are able to hold onto their passports. Also, migrant workers are foreign people, and that makes some officials disinterested in them. They are not Jordanian. They are far.

Our organization has been punished as a result of these biases. You have heard me speak about Tamkeen and Daem – the reason for the two names is because the government wasn’t happy with the way Tamkeen was working and so they violated our right to get funding. Because of this, we established a new not-for-profit company under the name Daem. Daem is the same organization, the same people, and we continue our work.  I explained to our donors and we re-signed all our agreements. We had to do this to avoid difficulties.”

-Linda Alkalash


February 18, 2014 | Bremen Donovan