Migrant workers in Jordan are making their voices heard

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Al Hassan Industrial Park in Jordan
A Jordanian employee assembles clothing at a plant in the Al-Hassan Industrial Estate near Irbid – the QIZ in Jordan. In 1997, the U.S. established several Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) in Jordan and Egypt, where labor-intensive production (such as textiles and garments), were manufactured for tax-free export to the U.S., under the condition that the financial operation involved an 8% Israeli input. Photo credit-ArteEast

As the world marks International Migrants Day on December 18, ILO News looks at the impact of legislation allowing migrant workers in Jordan to join trade unions.

AMMAN (ILO News) – Jordan’s foreign workforce is large and growing fast. Around half a million migrants, most from Asian and Arab countries, toil long hours under sometimes difficult conditions.
For years, migrants who were over-worked, underpaid or abused in other ways, had no bargaining power as they were barred from joining trade unions.Since 2010, migrant workers have been allowed to join trade unions, vote in union elections, and participate in enterprise level worker committees.

The legislative amendment has had a strong impact in the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) and particularly in the garment sector, which employs a 75-80 per cent migrant workforce – some 30,000 people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere.

The QIZs, where products can be manufactured and exported duty free to the United States, were set up in the 1990s in a bid to ease unemployment and stimulate the economy. They brought in foreign investment but working conditions attracted only foreign labour and did not lead to more jobs for Jordanians.

Longer hours, less pay

Migrants usually work longer hours for less pay than Jordanian workers. They are not protected by national labour laws and lack access to social protection, which makes them highly vulnerable.

In 2012, the national minimum wage was increased for Jordanian workers to 190 Jordanian Dinars but for migrants it was set at 110 JD.

In the garment sector, over 70 per cent of workers are women, most of whom have left their homes and families for the first time, are illiterate, and are unaware of their legal rights in Jordan.

The right to join trade unions was key to improving their working conditions.

“These workers were under our umbrella, and we needed to defend them” says Fathalla Omrani, President of the General Trade Union for Garment Workers, adding: “the union is their first line of defence.”

But this was against the law, which stipulated that only Jordanian workers could join unions.

As the number of migrant workers increased over the years, labour unions, with the support of the ILO and other bodies, began pursuing a legal pathway to allow migrant workers to join the unions, initiating a tripartite discussion between the government, unions and employers’ associations.

Adnan Abu Rageb, from the Jordan Chamber of Industry, said the goal was to “institutionalize” the way migrant worker issues are addressed. Unions already were helping migrant workers, but it was informal – and against the law.

“It was about putting what existed into a frame of the law,” Abu Rageb said. By doing so, they could expand migrant workers’ rights and make their collective bargaining efforts more effective.

In July 2010, the Cabinet approved the amendment removing the clause prohibiting migrant workers from joining unions.

“With the increasing number of issues concerning migrant workers, in order to organize them and protect their rights, there needed to be an institution,” says Jehad Ahmad Jadallah, Labour Relations Manager, Ministry of Labour.

“Some industries have more than 10,000 migrant workers” Jadallah adds. “How can we know their problems and demands, unless they join unions?”

Good for workers, good for business

Better conditions for migrant workers has also been good for business, says Mohamad Khorma, Chairman of Jordan Garments, Accessories & Textiles Exporters Association (JGATE), a collection of factory owners and employers.

“We have one of the biggest sectors with migrant workers. We depend on them. This amendment is part of the improvements we like to see. We deal with buyers in the United States, who are monitored by human rights and compliance groups. This helps us maintain competitiveness of the sector.”

Maintaining competitiveness, while also maintaining fair terms of employment, decent working conditions, and collective bargaining rights is a key balance.

Jordan has made progress towards striking that balance, but the work is not yet finished.

While migrant workers can now join the 16 existing industry unions, they cannot run in union elections and – like Jordanian workers – cannot establish their own, as Jordan has not ratified ILO Core Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and the Protection of the Right to Organise.

Pakistani Arshad Ali, who has worked in Jordan’s garment sector for 36 years, says it’s a good thing migrant workers can now join trade unions “because the garment factories have many problems.” It also means workers, who previously did not know regulations about basic pay, vacation time, working hours and sick days “can now understand their rights,” he says.

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