Refugees Farmers in Jordan Robbed of Their Wages
This is how Um Mohammad*, a Syrian who has been working in farming for three years in Jordan’s Badiah District, summed up her situation. She hasn’t received her dues, valued at JOD 327 ($462), from three labor brokers (locally known as “a shawish”) in return for the work she did during 2021 summer season. The same is true for Karim, Ali and Fatima.
Employers have been exploiting Syrian refugees working in agriculture, through curtailing their wages or paying them less than the minimum wage (JOD 245 for a non-Jordanian laborer). Those workers don’t usually have access to social security protection either, since the Agricultural Workers’ Regulations have not entered into force yet.
Five Syrian refugees who arrived from Syria in 2013 have been working in agriculture have explained to the reporter that they were forced to work for a daily rate not exceeding JOD 8 ($12), in a country where the poverty line is estimated to stand at approximately JOD 100 ($142) per month. Those refugees are ignorant of their right to access any social security, and they have been living in makeshift plastic tents at farms in remote areas of Jordan.
According to the director of communication at “Al Phoenix” Labor Watch, Nadim Abdel-Samad, farm workers live in “bad” conditions in tents that lack sanitation.
Ali* has been growing lettuce for a full month, and has not received his JOD 300 ($425) due to him which include his overtime. Now, he is working at a farm growing lettuce and tomato for JOD 1 ($1.42) an hour. If one day he doesn’t show up at work due to sickness, he loses his day’s pay, in violation of Article 7/B of the Agricultural Workers’ Regulations.
Jawdat Al-Abadi, who owns a farm close to the Jordan River, does not employ Syrian workers, but he confirmed that all his relatives pay Syrian agricultural laborers JOD 1 per hour too.
The director of “Tamkeen Association for Legal Aid and Human Rights”, Linda Al-Kalash, says failure to pay workers their wages is considered to be a form of exploitation punishable by law according to articles 54 and 137 of the Jordanian Labor Code. She adds that the Ministry of Labor has a limited number of inspectors – 170 only – capable of covering abuses across all sectors in the kingdom. She claims that “a lot of agricultural holdings are not registered with the Ministry of Agriculture which make it difficult for inspectors to investigate any abuse committed there”.
No Complaints Despite Violations
In 2018, Karim* verbally agreed a deal with a farm owner in Um Rummana, in Zarqa Qasabah District, to share the profits from growing strawberries in his fields over a period of three years, sharing also the costs of seedlings, agricultural tools, plowing work and greenhouses. After one year, the owner outsourced the crop to another Syrian family who profited from selling it reimbursing Karim only for the expenses he incurred, but not for his labor and that of his family for a whole year. Karim was advised not to seek legal help, since that would lead to nowhere usually.
Hazem Shakhatra, a labor lawyer, claims that workers are covered by the law even if their contracts are verbal or if they don’t have a work permit. Any contract stands even if it is written in clear and simple language that the worker understands, and witnesses could testify to help uphold the worker’s legal rights. He says that withholding wages is “an infringement, under the Agricultural Workers’ Regulations or any other regulations.” The reason why Syrians don’t file complaints in his opinion, is due to their fear of retribution and deportation due to the fact that they consider themselves refugees in a foreign country with limited rights.
According to the Ministry of Labor, at the time of publication of this report, no complaints were filed by Syrian agricultural workers, despite the fact that 105,000 such workers have been registered at the ministry between 2016 and March 2022.
No Law Has Governed the Agricultural Sector for 12 Years
The agricultural sector remained without legal legislation protecting workers’ rights and regulating their employment for 12 years. But in March 2021, the Agricultural Workers’ Regulations were promulgated.
According to the new regulations, agricultural workers are covered by the Labor Code, and therefore they are guaranteed to earn the national minimum wages, to work a specific number of hours, to be included in the social security umbrella in addition to upholding their rights, and to subject their housing provisions to specific criteria according to Labor Watch.
Maleka Al-Rawashda, director of the Jordanian Spring Agricultural Association, says that she has been discussing the laws with the Ministry of Labor, but “since the pandemic, there were no developments regarding this pending issue”. The role of the agricultural associations is limited to issuing freelance work permits for Syrian refugees to work in the sector, but such permits are decreasing in number as a worker is obliged to pay JOD 50 ($70) to renew it, and this fee usually includes a JOD 37 ($53) contribution for the worker’s social security plan.
Although the regulations oblige the employer to enroll their workers in the social security program, according to Article 12, Al-Rawashda says, that if a worker issues a freelance work permit for themselves, they would have to pay the association’s fees and the social security contribution themselves.
Hossam Al-Sa’di, director of the Insurance Awareness Department at the Social Security Institution, said, “We don’t ask the Ministry of Labor to collect social security contributions on our behalf.” To begin with, he says, workers should enroll themselves in social security through the institution’s website because “our services are provided electronically through the freelance professions inclusion system. This is in case the farm they work at isn’t licensed by the Ministry of Agriculture and isn’t registered with the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Supply.”
The official spokesperson of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Supply, Yanal Al-Bermawi, responded by saying that “agricultural holdings are licensed by the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Labor is tasked with monitoring welfare of laborers are observed and we (the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Supply) have nothing to do with that.”
According to the Director of the Farm Crops Production Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture, Mohamed Al-Jammal, new instructions were issued for legalizing the agricultural sector through the registration of all active farms. Those farms must also be licensed by this ministry and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Supply and must obtain a registration number. This way the farm will be linked directly to the social security system in order to automatically include the farms workers on its ledgers.
Pressures from Farmers
Not all articles of the Agricultural Workers’ Regulations came into effect due to the pandemic and the Defense Orders imposed during that period. Item 3 of Communication No. 41 allowed agricultural entities to put on hold “applications for old age, work disability, death, and maternity insurance for most agricultural workers, but those shall be upheld from January 1, 2023 in accordance with the provisions of the Social Security Law in the Agricultural Workers’ Regulations No. 19 of 2021”.
According to the “Workers’ House institute” the delay in implementing the Agricultural Workers’ Regulations came in response to pressures from employers, who staged sit-ins before the Jordanian House of Representatives demanding a postponement of the regulations’ rollout.
Abdullah Abu Al-Sheikh, a farm owner in the south of the country, believes the new Agricultural Workers’ Regulations don’t protect farmers. Ahmad Al-Mohammadiyin also a farmer agrees with Abu Al Sheikh and claims that the regulations have incurred “useless expenses” since most workers have freelance work permits enabling them to work everywhere.
Abu Al-Sheikh adds that he pays social security fees for workers who receive monthly salaries only, but does not do so on behalf of day-laborers and those who move from one farm to another .
The Ministry of Labor believes that those workers in the agricultural sector who change employers seeking higher pay are the reason behind the violation of their own labor rights. It says that in 2021, the ministry has made 1,811 field visits to explain to farmers and agricultural workers their rights and duties as a mean to gradually introducing them to the new regulations.
The UNHCR responded diplomatically by saying that it was closely following farm workers’ cases with the Jordanian Ministry of Labor in accordance with government regulations and laws. It has conducted awareness campaigns with refugees so that they could be aware of their financial rights, according to UNHCR spokesman Mohammad Al-Hawari.
While the world has continued to celebrate the abolition of slavery, as well as people trafficking in its classical sense, since 1949, Fatima and seven others continued to work on a farm for two consecutive months awaiting a wage of just JOD 1.25 ($1.76). She ended up being denied her pay, and was told to go and “complain if you can prove you have a case”. The same is true for Um Muhammad, Karim, Ali and thousands others of those who are exposed to people trafficking in its modern sense.