Refugee farmers in Jordan robbed of their wages, denied rights

Farmers harvest at a Jordanian farm. (Photos: Ameer Khalifeh/Jordan News)
AMMAN — “Our wages weren’t paid last summer,” remarked Um Mohammad, a Syrian who has been working in farming for three years in Jordan’s badiah district, summing up her situation. اضافة اعلان

She hasn’t received her dues, valued at JD327, from three labor brokers, locally known as “a shawish” in return for the work she did during the 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 of JD245, paid for non-Jordanians.

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 here in 2013 and have since been working in agriculture, explained to the reporter that they were forced to work for a daily rate not exceeding JD8, in a country where the poverty line is estimated to stand at approximately JD100 per month.

Those refugees are ignorant of their right to access any social security, and have been living in makeshift plastic tents at farms in remote areas of Jordan.

According to the director of communication at the Phenix Center’s Jordan Labor Watch, Nadim Abdel-Samad, farm workers live in “bad” conditions in tents that lack sanitation.

Ali has grown lettuce for a full month, but was not paid the JD300 he was owed, which included overtime.

Now, he shifted to another farm, also growing lettuce and tomato for JD1 an hour. If he is sick and fails to show up at work, he will not be given his day wage, 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 said that his relatives hire Syrian agricultural laborers, paying them JD1 per hour, too.

The director of Tamkeen Association for Legal Aid and Human Rights, Linda Al-Kalash, said failure to pay workers’ wages is considered a form of exploitation, punishable by law, according to articles 54 and 137 of the Jordanian Labor Law.

She added that the Ministry of Labor has a limited number of 170 inspectors, who can examine abuses across all sectors in the Kingdom.

“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,” she said.

No complaints, despite violations
In 2018, Karim verbally agreed to a deal with a farm owner in Um Rummana in Zarqa’s Qasabah district. The deal entailed sharing profits from growing strawberries for three years. It envisaged also sharing 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 and his family’s labor for a whole year.

Karim was advised not to seek legal help, since that would lead to nowhere usually.

Labor lawyer Hazem Shakhatra claimed that workers are covered by the law even if their contracts are verbal, or 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 said 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 because 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 regulation, agricultural workers are covered by the Labor Law, and therefore they are guaranteed to earn the national minimum wage. The regulation stipulated that the laborers can work a specific number of hours, be included in the social security umbrella, in addition to upholding their rights, according to Jordan 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 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 JD50 to renew it.

She said the fee includes a JD37 contribution for the worker’s social security plan.

Although the regulations oblige the employer to enroll their workers in the social security program, Al-Rawashda said that if workers are issued freelance work permits, they would have to pay the social security contribution themselves.

Hossam Al-Saadi, director of the Insurance Awareness Department at the Social Security Corporation, said “We don’t ask the Ministry of Labor to collect social security contributions on our behalf.”

To begin with, he said 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 is not licensed by the Ministry of Agriculture and is not registered with the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Supply,” he added.

Yanal Al-Barmawi, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Supply, said his ministry has no role in such matters. “Agricultural holdings are licensed by the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Labor is tasked with monitoring workers’ welfare,” he said.

Mohamed Al-Jammal, the director of the Farm Crops Production Directorate at the Ministry of Agriculture, said 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 Industry Ministry 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 Lower House of Parliament, demanding a postponement of the regulations’ rollout.

Abdullah Abu Al-Sheikh, a farm owner in the south of the country, believed the new Agricultural Workers’ Regulations do not protect farmers.

Ahmad Al-Mohammadiyin, also a farmer, agrees with Abu Al Sheikh. He said most workers have freelance work permits, which enable them to work everywhere.

Abu Al-Sheikh pointed out 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 said that workers in the agricultural sector, who change employers seeking higher pay, are partly blamed for the violation of their own labor rights.

 It said that in 2021, the ministry 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 said it was closely following the cases of farm workers with the Jordanian Ministry of Labor, in accordance with government regulations and laws.

The UNHCR 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 for a daily wage of just JD1.25.

Fatima 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.

This story was published in association with ARIJ.

Read more Features
Jordan News