“Angela” came to Jordan to work as a housekeeper because she is a single mother and needs to save for her children’s schooling. She paid a recruiter in the Philippines 11,000 pesos, about $234, “for the processing of my papers.” An hour before she went to the airport, she says, she signed a contract written in Arabic, a language she does not read. She did not see an English-language copy. Her recruiter told her she would receive $150 per month.

Once in Jordan, Angela found herself not only dusting and mopping, but also minding four children in a large flat. She lost weight from overwork, and her friend working downstairs told her to run away. She says her second employer was more difficult, however. “I was always crying. The house was three times bigger, and the madam very strict.” Angela moved to a recruitment agency, where she cleaned the office for room and board, but no salary.

“Vivian” worked in the same household for nine years. “Madam had cancer,” she relates. “Even in the middle of the night I changed her diaper, like a nurse. I sacrificed nine years, and she gave me nothing — not even an earring or a napkin.”

The stories of Angela and Vivian are sadly familiar in Jordan. According to Ministry of Labor figures, there are some 300,000 migrant workers in the country, the vast majority of them women, who cook, clean and care-take in private homes. Most of these women are from the Philippines, Sri Lanka or other countries in South and Southeast Asia. Tales of maltreatment — late or missing pay packets, confinement in the home, physical abuse — at the hands of employers are legion. Penniless and frequently without a passport, which their employer has confiscated, badly treated domestics may escape the house and take refuge at an agency or their embassy. It is a well-known scene in Amman, says Shatha Mahmood, formerly the UN official tasked with monitoring domestic migrants’ issues in Jordan: “A woman runs from the house, gets in a taxi and the driver will at once understand that she wants to go to the embassy, even if she cannot articulate her wish.” But, if the abused women locate a place of refuge, their problems may not end there. The state is apt to levy overstay fees upon those who cannot produce a valid visa. And the women have virtually no forum in which to seek redress of the wrongs or advocate for their rights. Jordanian law, in fact, prohibits foreigners from organizing themselves for any political purpose.

Well-intentioned non-governmental organizations in Jordan call for the empowerment of migrant domestics, to give them recourse against abusive employers, but reform can only be enacted with the cooperation of the government, for which the foreign women are hardly a priority. In partnership with the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), in 1996 and 2003 the Jordanian government enacted several regulations for the protection of migrant domestic workers. The new regulations are Janus-faced: They offer some measure of legal recourse, but also reinforce discriminatory social norms. Moreover, they cement the dependence of the migrant domestics upon other forces. With dim prospects in the reeling global economy, what these women need is to be empowered to act in their own collective interest, but such fundamental reform seems a long way off in Jordan.

Precarious Legal Position

In 2003, Jordan’s Ministry of Labor promulgated the Special Working Contract for Non-Jordanian Domestic Workers. The Special Working Contract contains several protections of workers’ rights, for instance, an explicit prohibition of the impoundment of passports by employers and a requirement that agents obtain work permits prior to the worker’s entry, so that fewer migrant women wind up overstaying their visas and falling into debt. Enforcement of these policies is lax at best, however.

Short of taking their employers to court, workers can exert little pressure on them to uphold the terms of the contract. When a worker does take her employer to court, a decision in her favor is rare. According to a consular officer at the Philippines Embassy, in his three years in Jordan not a single woman had won her case. [1] Even when a judge decides against employers, they do not always comply. Several women interviewed in 2007 at the Philippines Embassy safe house, whose cases had been decided in their favor, were still waiting for their employers to pay their back salaries, overstay penalties or return tickets home. Another issue of concern is inadequate monitoring of licensed recruitment agencies. As of August 2007 the Ministry of Labor had registered 95 recruitment agencies, making it difficult to track all of them. Unwatched, the agencies simply choose which regulations to tell the employers about — and which to disregard.

Despite the Ministry’s distribution of the Special Working Contract, employers and recruitment agents continue to ignore some of its provisions. Agents may even violate regulations, for example, encouraging employers to withhold passports. One agent at the Ashraf Abu Talab Company for Manpower stated that he told employers to keep their employees’ passports, residency and work permits, and cellular phones to prevent them from running away. In some cases, migrant workers sign contracts detailing rights and salary in the home country, but find upon arrival that the agreement will not be honored. [2] A Sri Lankan embassy official said this problem is common. [3] While the Special Working Contract prohibits employers from deducting expenses they incur in bringing workers to Jordan from the workers’ salaries, they do this routinely, especially to Filipinas, who travel the longest distance.

“My madam wanted to deduct four months’ salary — $1,500,” says “Jessica.” “And for her my work is always too slow. She slaps me, pulls my hair, says bad words to me and threatens me. I want to go back to the Philippines.” But for now, she is stuck. In many cases like Jessica’s, workers end up with no salary for a year.

Implicit in the Jordanian policies on migrant domestics is the concept of obedience; the government places the employer and agent in charge of the worker, in exchange for her obedience to both the agent and the employer. Not surprisingly, this bargain is to the detriment of the migrant workers who, as non-citizens, are not entitled to ordinary personal rights. The Special Working Contract, for instance, requires the worker to obtain permission from the employer to leave the house on her day off or to absent herself from work. [4] The contract also provides for the immediate dismissal and return to the home country of any worker found to be physically unfit, infected with a contagious disease or pregnant. Such unsubtle gender bias is one of many ways in which employers’ advantages over workers are preserved.

The experience of “Leny” shows the extent to which employers exploit the laxity of the law to teach employees their place in the household. Leny’s boss gave her little food and demanded that she wash herself with laundry detergent. But worse were the racist, misogynist slurs. “All you Filipinas are the same,” the employer would say. “You open your legs for five dinars.”

Leny’s plight highlights the threat of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of employers. Employers thus charged by domestics have the right to countersue for defamation. This provision is especially troubling for victims of rape, who (like Jordanian citizens) are required to produce at least two witnesses and submit to a medical exam proving that a rape occurred. If the victim presents her case without what the police consider sufficient evidence, she faces imprisonment for making a false accusation.

The Guide for Women Migrant Domestic Workers produced by the Ministry of Labor in 2006 also asserts employers’ control over workers’ freedom of movement. The section on workers’ duties goes on to enjoin workers to “respect the privacy of the house you work in” and “do the job with trustworthiness and dedication.” While the guide exhorts employers to treat workers humanely, it says nothing about respecting their privacy or honesty in dealings with them. In another section, the guide cautions, “Any worker who enters Jordan illegally or leaves the homeowner without his/her knowledge or breaks the contract without a valid reason exposes herself to deportation at her expense.” Implicit here is the message that, without an employer, migrant domestic workers have no legal right to remain in Jordan. Both of these statements remind workers of their precarious position as non-citizens. Additionally, the exclusion of domestic workers from the main labor law means that these workers cannot form or join unions. In June 2008, the Jordanian Parliament adopted amendments to the 1996 Labor Code, extending the law to cover Jordanian and foreign workers in agricultural and domestic work. Parliament approved additional amendments pertaining to trade union rights for migrant workers in July 2009. It is still unclear how these amendments will affect the rights of migrant workers, in particular, domestics.

With regard to overstay fees, the Special Working Contract holds employers and agents responsible for workers who are out of status, but immigration law and practice hold the worker accountable. Two women at the Philippines Embassy safe house in 2005 spoke of being imprisoned for several days because of overstay penalties. [5] The consular officer at the Philippines Embassy said he has never known Jordanian authorities to waive the overstay fees, not even for children of migrant women. [6]

In Loco Parentis

Without unions or other platforms of their own, migrant women must rely upon their home-country embassies, NGOs, churches, the Jordanian government and individual Jordanians to look out for their interests. At their worst, these entities may represent exploitation and abuse as unfortunate anomalies in what is otherwise a rewarding and enriching experience for the workers. But even the institutions that exhibit genuine concern for the workers do not, by and large, push for systemic solutions.

Embassies play the most important mediating role. But not only are they powerless to enforce Jordan’s nominal labor standards, they are often more anxious to maintain good relations with the Jordanian government so as not to hurt their home country’s ability to export workers and harvest the hard currency the workers send home. The Indonesian Embassy has been especially solicitous of Jordanian feelings, to the extent that it does not allow its nationals to take refuge on the grounds. At the other end of the spectrum, the Philippines Embassy has been particularly active in improving the lot of its citizens. In January 2008, the Philippines instituted a moratorium on sending new domestic workers to Jordan because of the growing number of abused Filipinas seeking refuge at the embassy in Amman. [7] This measure may have caused more harm than good, however, since women desperate for work may resort to illegal trafficking channels, where they are more vulnerable to ill treatment. Manila ended the ban after two months on the conditions that Filipina domestic workers’ salaries would be increased from $150 to $400 per month and that all contracts get the embassy’s approval. [8] A number of recruitment agents, however, said it is easy to circumvent this demand. Apparently, officials at the embassy will frequently agree to contracts with a salary of $150-200, as will the migrant workers themselves. The ban also prompted the creation of a joint committee, consisting of representatives of both governments, to investigate the complaints of runaway domestic workers.

UNIFEM has gone the route of public education, producing brochures and guides for workers, Jordanians and recruitment agents. The UN body usually commissions the research and writing from a branch of the Jordanian government or an NGO called the Friends of Women Workers Association. These publications often emphasize the ways in which workers are victims. On the cover of a brochure targeting Jordanians, an Asian woman is pictured resting her head on her knees, her eyes downcast, above the text: “What if we were in their place? Would we be satisfied with duties but no rights?” Inside, the brochure sums up the responsibilities of an employer vis-à-vis a non-Jordanian domestic worker and lists the contact information of relevant organizations and government agencies.
But does it help Southeast and South Asian women in Jordan to depict them as servants and victims? Does the cover text help readers relate to these workers as human beings or, given the fact that few of the readers would find themselves working as live-in maids, does it simply reinforce their position of power vis-à-vis the workers? Does the brochure encourage readers to envision migrant women as individuals with rights or as wards of others, rather like a child who needs a parent? Jordanian readers may question why non-citizens should enjoy the same rights that they do and whether domestic work can be compared to other forms of paid employment. And since it does not link the constraints imposed on migrant women to those on Jordanian women, does this pamphlet detach the plight of migrant women from the struggle for women’s equality?

Other UNIFEM publications offer possible answers to these questions. Case in point: a study of runaway workers, authored by the Friends of Women Workers Association, with the dual purpose of identifying the “various means of empowering the status of Sri Lankan, Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers in Jordan” and providing recommendations for the Association to implement. [9] This study draws upon interviews with embassy staff, government officials a representative of the Recruiting Agencies Association, one employer, one satisfied worker and two runaways. On the cover appear close-ups of the faces of three Asian women. There are valuable insights into the challenges facing migrant domestic workers, such as non-payment of wages and overstay fees, and the various employer exemptions.

But the author’s almost exclusive focus on the workers’ vulnerability is hardly “empowering.” It portrays the workers as needing protection, but says nothing about the racism and xenophobia among Jordanians that helps to create the need. Take the phenomenon of culture shock for the workers. Some employers, the report says, require that workers cut their hair because “long hair is perceived as dirty” by Jordanians. Employers lock Filpina domestics in the house because of stereotypes about their promiscuity. [10] Such practices are labeled as differences in cultural norms, absolving the employer of responsibility and offering the worker no remedy whatsoever beyond hope that her employer is enlightened.

The image of the foreign domestic worker as victim is more prominent in a media campaign organized by UNIFEM and the Ministry of Labor in which cartoons by the famed ‘Imad Hajjaj appeared on billboards, posters and the pages of a calendar. In one cartoon strip, Hajjaj’s main character Abu Mahjoub is depicted showing humiliating deference to his employer, the police and his wife. Only with his maid can he exert any authority; in the final panel, he is slumped in a chair, while she serves him coffee with the same “Yes, sir!” that he has given to those above him. The cartoon is headlined: “Thank you, Sri Lanka!” Migrant domestics, the strip implies, are at the bottom of the social hierarchy — servile and utterly impotent because they are the victims of victims.

Churches and community groups are an alternative to the government and UNIFEM programs, offering assistance and a welcome place for migrant workers to socialize with their peers. But these institutions also encourage the workers to resign themselves to hardship in the workplace. In one sermon, Father V., pastor of the Filipino Fellowship, began by acknowledging that the “greener pastures” of Jordan might not seem so green. But hard work and perseverance would pay off: He had become an engineer in Dubai though he lacked a high school diploma. The next week, Father Velasco told the biblical story of Joseph, who after being sold by his brothers into bondage in Egypt, was “a servant like some of us.” Joseph, too, was a “live-in,” but God was with him. “I want you to see the privilege of living with your employer,” the priest went on. “If God is with you then you will prosper.” Other sermons urged workers not to squander their earnings on “luxury items” (such as cell phones and jewelry), to treat employers kindly and to work hard regardless of conditions. Events sponsored by the Caritas Migrant Center, a Catholic charity, presented the workers with similar entreaties. Speakers reminded workers of their reasons for migrating to Jordan, admonishing them not to abscond even when employers were abusive and fellow workers were urging them to get out of harm’s way. At the 2004 Christmas party, a Ms. Khouri, there to represent employers, told the assembled women: “Don’t run away. Don’t listen to your friend, lest you go back to your family with a bad reputation.” A Caritas staffer offered similar lessons: Domestics, she said, should “care for the house, preserve its morals and be patient. A worker should not “run away at the first problem because when she runs away she is the loser.” [11] Such advice may be practical, in the sense that runaways can be imprisoned and deported, but it also suppresses serious discussion of the workers’ vulnerabilities.

Migrant domestics have no formal organizations, but they do have social networks. One such network is the Migrant Workers’ Association, a group founded by Filipinas. [12] The association offers loans to pay overstay fees, purchase airline tickets and deal with other such emergencies. Each member must pay dues of ten dinars, which are returned upon permanent return to the country of origin. While this network gives a measure of protection against unscrupulous employers and unfair immigration regulations, it is not useful for demanding rights. It remains outside of the UNIFEM umbrella, which limits its leverage.

Dilemmas of Reform

There is a final wrinkle in Jordan’s attempts to regulate the treatment of migrant domestic workers and eliminate their abuse and exploitation. The new regulations allow the government to exercise greater control over the workers’ lives. The fact that the Philippines Embassy has to approve the contract of every Philippines national who enters Jordan for domestic employment means that the Jordanian government can closely track their entry and exit. Fresh proposals for reform raise further questions about government control. A joint proposal by UNIFEM and the Ministry of Labor to require the opening of bank accounts for each worker will enable the Ministry of Labor to monitor payments made to workers. Will the Ministry have access to the earnings in these accounts or just information about deposits and withdrawals? The proposal for a migrant domestic workers’ shelter posits that an “independent committee” — selected by the state — would run the facility. Should this shelter be built, moreover, embassies might come under increased pressure to close their doors to their nationals. The Jordanian government has repeatedly called the housing of migrants by embassies illegal. According to Shatha Mahmood, the former UNIFEM official, Amman perceives the sheltering as a violation of Jordanian sovereignty. [13] Protection of abused domestics would thus be entirely in the hands of the Jordanian government.

With improved enforcement of regulations and further public education campaigns, migrant domestics in Jordan may be spared the horrors that befell Angela, Jessica, Leny, Vivian and untold numbers of women like them. In the coming years the question will be whether these women will be empowered as individuals with rights as workers, migrants and women. In order for this to happen, it seems likely that the Jordanian government will need to address how gender norms constrain women’s roles — whether they are citizens or non-citizens — as well as the link between the status of Jordanian women and that of migrant domestic workers. Ideally, migrant domestic workers themselves would be incorporated into this process of reform. For now, there seems to be no reason to revise Mahmood’s answer to the question of how these women are to negotiate the terms of their livelihood in Jordan: “That’s why we have embassies.”


[1] Interview with Arvic Arevalo, executive officer and head of consular section, Embassy of the Philippines, Amman, November 28, 2004.
[2] Firas Ta‘amna, Law and Practice on International Labor Migration: Jordan, A Case Study, paper presented at the International Labor Organization General Discussion on Migrant Workers, September 2003, p. 20.
[3] Interview with Mahinda Samarasekera, employment and welfare counselor of the Embassy of Sri Lanka, Amman, May 2, 2005.
[4] Knut V. Bergem, “The Role of the State in the In-Migration of Domestic Workers to Jordan and the GCC Countries” in Francoise de Bel Air, ed., Migration et Politique au Moyen-Orient (Beirut: Institut Français du Proche-Orient, 2006), p. 68.
[5] Interviews, Amman, January 31, 2005.
[6] Interview with Arvic Arevalo, executive officer and head of consular section, Embassy of the Philippines, Amman, November 28, 2004.
[7] Jordan Times, January 24, 2008.
[8] Jordan Times, April 6, 2008.
[9] Friends of Women Workers Association, Migrant Women Workers in Jordan: The Case of Runaways (Amman: UNIFEM, 2007), p. 10.
[10] Ibid., pp. 14-15.
[11] Interview with Samira ‘Akasha, Caritas Migrant Center, Amman, August 1, 2007.
[12] The association’s name has been altered to protect the identities of its members.
[13] Interview with Shatha Mahmood, UNIFEM, Amman, September 24, 2004.

How to cite this article:

Rola Abimourched "No Shelter," Middle East Report 253 (Winter 2009).

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