The Jordan Teachers’ Syndicate (JTS), previously one of the Jordan’s largest and most active trade unions, was outlawed after a violent crackdown against its leaders and rank-and-file members. Its thirteen board members have been held on a charge relating to the union’s plans to launch a national pressure campaign in order to push for better wages, which were previously promised to them in 2019 after a month-long strike but later rescinded by the government. Another charge the union’s leadership faces relates to donations made to bolster the governmental effort to contain COVID-19 in Jordan.
The leaders have appealed their current charges, which civil rights organizations, human rights activists, and international trade unions have universally decried as arbitrary.
Special judicial attention is being paid to the deputy head of the JTS, Dr. Naser al-Nawasrah, who posted videos on his Facebook that openly criticized the government’s treatment of the union and was one of the union’s most outspoken leaders during its unprecedented month-long strike in Sept 2019. He reportedly faces a separate charge related to his activism and has been detained in police custody at least twice since the crackdown began, according to sources close to him.
During the 2019 strike, Jordan's police forces attempted to physically beat the union’s members back into the classroom. Nawasrah responded defiantly at the time, saying “[The teachers] will not enter the classrooms until those responsible for transgressions against teachers… are held accountable.” It appears the government is making an example of al-Nawasrah’s activism in an attempt to dissuade other dissidents, activists, trade unionists, or youth from protesting state decisions.
Most of the state’s charges against the union and its leadership revolve around its labor militancy. Amman’s Magistrate Court determined the JTS’ threat to engage in another national strike was a way of “threatening authorities,” in documents obtained by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“There are many teachers who have been arbitrarily punished by transfer or retirement.”
At the same time, rank-and-file teachers themselves have reportedly faced a raft of retribution for their participation in protests against the government’s criminalization of the union. Researchers with HRW have received lists of dozens of teachers who were arbitrarily ousted from their profession into retirement and early retirement schemes by the Ministry of Education between Aug and Dec 2020.
An early retirement wage is often substantially less than a normal teacher’s pay, driving families toward desperation who were already strained due to the ongoing global economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Munther al-Jabbarat, a middle-aged director of a public school in al-Safi Valley, was notified via WhatsApp that he was being pushed into retirement, which slashed his salary from 700 JD to 75 JD. Three of his daughters were also suspended from their universities “until further notice.”
“There are many teachers who have been arbitrarily punished by transfer or retirement,” Mohammad Al Maita, an expert with the International Labor Organization and Arab Trade Union Confederation (ATUC), told Al Bawaba, noting also “others whose bonus has been withheld, administrative penalties imposed on them, and others who have been arrested then released on bail.”
Striking teachers take to the streets in Amman, Jordan (AFP/FILE)
After the government raided the JTS’ thirteen offices around the country in July 2020, thousands of teachers and community members rallied in support of the union. Demonstrations took places across the country, with major roadways shut down by sprawling crowds marching and demanding justice for the union. In response, Jordan’s government launched an offensive police crackdown, arresting over 1,000 teachers with violent force, banning media from covering the actions, and refusing to reinstate the union.
“[The] teachers’ union now needs all international solidarity and advocacy efforts,” Al Maita continued. “Any efforts or statements by international institutions would help in this case.”
The AFL-CIO, a prominent American trade union, issued a strong statement condemning the treatment of the teachers. “The AFL-CIO Calls for all charges to be dropped immediately against the JTS [Jordan Teachers’ Syndicate] leaders and to reverse the decision to dissolve the JTA,” the statement reads.
Ahmad Awad, Director of the Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies in Amman, told Al Bawaba that “what happened with the Teachers Association and its leadership are clear violations of human rights principles, and in particular the freedom of association.”
Awad further links the arbitrary treatment of the union and its members with a general decline in public freedoms in Jordan, stating “the space for democratic practices [has] narrowed.” Researchers with HRW concurred, saying in a statement “The attack on the Teachers’ Syndicate demonstrates how Jordan’s respect for basic rights continues to deteriorate.”
In recent weeks, there has been mounting social unrest in Jordan around the country’s strict lockdown policies relating to the pandemic, which have not been augmented by economic stimulus spending to keep workers’ wages paid and businesses open as other wealthier countries have done. As a result, unemployment and poverty rates are surging.
“The space for democratic practices [has] narrowed.”
Historically unions like the JTS and other worker collectives have been on the forefront in Jordan to pressure for better wages and protections for the country’s 10 million people. The JTS in particular was formed during the early 2011 Arab Spring protests, which saw thousands of teachers striking and hosting sit-in protests demanding the recognition of their union. It was one of the protest movement’s enduring achievements.
The union had remained a highly active and vibrant part of Jordanian civil society.
In general however, Jordan maintains strict control over its country’s workforce, legally sanctioning only a small number of labor unions and permitting a large informal economy, where exploitation runs rampant.
As the JTS’ appeals slowly navigate Jordan’s maze-like legal system, the country is sinking towards a deep and sustained period of crisis, where its people struggle to find effective vehicles to air their compounding economic and political grievances besides the mass street protests which it previously saw during the Arab Spring.
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