Several employers are exploiting illegal workers  by making them work extra hours for less pay, according to participants at a seminar on Tuesday that focused on obstacles preventing expatriate workers in the Kingdom from rectifying their work and residency status.
Calling on the government to take measures to protect this vulnerable group, they noted that these employers take advantage of the fact that illegal workers will not complain fearing deportation.
On January 7, the government decided to give illegal workers  a 60-day grace period to rectify their work and residence status, but only 10 per cent availed of the opportunity, according to Wisam Rimawi, who heads the migrant workers directorate at the labour ministry.
“Guest workers have been contributing to the development process in the country and the government highly values their role... however, the government is acting based on its national responsibilities to serve the public interest,” Rimawi said, noting that these work permit renewals generated nearly JD7.15 million in revenue.
According to Rimawi, more than 267,000 guest workers of different nationalities work in the Kingdom illegally — 65 per cent of whom are Egyptians — as opposed to an unofficial estimate of 300,000 illegal migrant labourers.
He said the government is aware of the problems facing guest workers , repeatedly giving them an opportunity to rectify their status and abide by work and residency permit regulations.
The labour official noted that some 7,186 domestic helpers also rectified their status during a 60-day grace period when they were exempted from accumulated fines on expired work permits. Moreover, 4,000 returned to their countries.
Rimawi added that working legally  empowers workers and makes them less likely to be exploited by employers.
Highlighting the reasons contributing to the illegal worker phenomenon, Rimawi said in the case of domestic helpers, many leave their workplace because of unpaid wages, harsh working conditions or the promise of higher salaries in other sectors.
As for the guest workers, he noted that many enter the Kingdom on a tourist or transit visa and later decide to stay in the country and work illegally.
Rimawi said many Egyptian workers change their sector especially those employed in agriculture, citing official figures indicating that there are 80,271 labourers with valid work permits in the agricultural sector.
He added at the seminar that labour inspectors will intensify their campaigns after the deadline to ensure that all workers are abiding by regulations, stressing that the crackdown is aimed at implementing the law and does not target any nationality in particular.
Representatives of trade unions, the interior ministry and the Public Security Department, in addition to workers’ rights activists, attended the one-day seminar, organised by the Daem (support) Observatory for Consultation and Training, (formerly known as the Tamkeen Centre for Legal Aid and Human Rights ), in cooperation with the Foundation for the Future and the Open Society Foundation.
Daem President Linda Kallash highlighted the fact that many workers pay huge amounts of cash to employers or middlemen to secure work contracts.
“This is a major problem and it is quite evident, especially in front of labour directorates where you can see these brokers negotiating with guest workers seeking to renew their work permits. This encourages them to work illegally and it is the responsibility of the authorities to combat such illegal practices,” Kallash said.
In addition, she pointed out that Article 77 of the Labour Law criminalises the confiscation of workers’ passports and imposes a minimum fine of JD1,000 on violators, yet this practice is widespread and has prevented many domestic helpers from taking advantage of the grace period offered by the government, which ended on February 7.
Moreover, Kallash urged the ministry to take the humanitarian factor into account when conducting any future inspection campaigns targeting illegal workers, noting that many guest labourers live here with their families and have children studying in local schools.
Taleb Saqqaf, a legal expert in the affairs of expatriate workers, noted that there are no international criteria regarding illegal workers and their legal protection, but he said they are technically included in the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
“Jordan is yet to ratify this agreement, which can provide solutions to the challenges facing migrant workers who are subject to exploitation by employers while working illegally in the country,” he said.