Over the past few weeks, the Nepali authorities have rescued six women from Jordan who were working in a factory under inhumane conditions. On February 14, five of the women had contacted their families and told them they and more than 100 others were being physically and mentally tortured. Their families contacted the Nepali civil organization Women’s Rights Protection Alliance, which then began to put pressure on the authorities to help the women. A seventh woman is currently awaiting the completion of her paperwork and will soon be returned home.
A major pillar of the Jordanian economy is its apparel industry, exporting garments to the US and Israeli-controlled territories following the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) agreement, signed by the three countries in 1996. The agreement was designed as a means to tackle problematic unemployment rates in Jordan, but the industry is in fact borne on the backs of the migrant workforce.
Linda al-Kalash director of Tamkeen, a Jordanian human rights organization that archives workers’ complaints and labor violations, explained that migrant workers make up 80 percent of employees in the sector, and, as in most countries in the region, have glaringly insufficient protection against exploitation.The industrial parks established under the QIZ agreement are particularly rife with abuses of the migrant workforce. “The inspections are weak, and often the officials are not even aware of the rights of migrant workers,” she said.
The women had gone to Jordan through a Nepali employment agency, SCC Manpower Company, and were sent to work in the garment factory Needle Craft Est in al-Dulay Industrial Park, a UAE-owned company that already hasa record of human rights violations. The women told human rights groups that during the month and a half they worked there, they were made to work 18 hour days and were not given proper food and lodging.
The women, whose identities are being protected, also said that Jordanian children would throw stones at them and youths would verbally and physically abuse the female workers.
The women had each paid the recruitment agency between $450 - $570 for the service of being shipped to Jordan for work, by no means a negligible sum. Many of those wanting to find work abroad have to either sell land or property or take out loans with high interest rates which take them a long time to work off.
The women have said that they were told by the recruitment agency that they would be paid $250 a month, but that their Jordanian employers only gave them $150.
Under pressure from human rights groups, the Nepali government facilitated the women’s flights back to Nepal. The Women’s Rights Protection Alliance paid for their passage home and with the help of Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), a grassroots organization founded and run by Nepali migrant workers to promote the rights and welfare of migrants, has filed complaints against SCC Manpower Company, demanding that the government punish the agency and extract compensation for the women.
For Nepalis, looking for employment abroad is a common solution for addressing extreme poverty. Nepal has an unemployment rate of 40 percent and the average daily wage is $3. Remittances from the migrant labor force contribute massively to the country’s economy. With upwards of 2.64 million registered migrant laborers and an estimated further 500,000 undocumented, $4.2 billion was sent back to Nepal through banking channels alone during the last fiscal year.
With this economic need to search for employment abroad, many Nepalis face unscrupulous government officials, middlemen, brokers and agents who are happy to defraud them at every stage in their application for work abroad and to then send them into inhumane working conditions where they have little or no protection from exploitation and often no means to afford the return trip home.
Purna Chandra Bhattarai, Director of Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment, said that in 2011 the government formed a high-level task force to drastically reform the existing migration process so as to better protect worker’s rights. He said that huge measures for reforms were put into place in 2012, including a web-based service for both online banking and for filing complaints. In 2012, a total of 2330 complaints by migrant workers were filed with the Nepali authorities, including 898 institutional complaints, which can cover thousands of individuals. 433 complaints were handled by the Nepali authorities.
Mahendra Pandey, chairperson of PNCC explained that recruiting agencies circumnavigate the protective laws by going into the rural areas to find prospective workers where there is limited awareness of the realities of working conditions abroad. “They promise people the opportunities to make lots of money, and they believe them,” he said. “Also, many of the agencies have political links and came act with impunity.”
The treatment of migrant workers in Jordan, whose presence has mushroomed in recent years, is notoriously bad, with the country having failed to sign the International Labour Organization’s Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Cases of employers withholding passports and salaries from migrant workers are more than frequent.
Concurrently, 1,300 Burmese workers in a garment factory in Jordan’s al-Hassan Industrial Estate have been on strike since February 14, demanding compensation for maltreatment. They were put in unlivable accommodation, with large numbers of people in small dorms, no doors on the bathrooms, bad food, and no pay for overtime, according to Tamkeen’s Kalash.
While migrant workers are covered by Jordanian labor laws, they are heavily discriminated against within its legislation. Minimum wage for Jordanian nationals is $270 and $210 for foreigners.
In a completely separate category, garment sector and domestic workers’ minimum wage is $155.
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