AMMAN — New labour ministry regulations meant to protect Egyptian migrant workers’ financial rights are in fact forcing some of these workers to relinquish their salaries, bribe their employers or submit to forced labour, a rights advocate said on Saturday.
The ministry’s recent regulations require Egyptian workers to obtain documents from their employers certifying that they have received all money owed to them before they can leave the country or renew their work permits, Tamkeen Centre for Legal Assistance and Human Rights President Linda Kallash said.
Although these instructions were meant to protect the workers’ rights and address frequent complaints over unpaid salaries, she added, the regulations are in practice allowing employers to extort their employees by forcing them to pay in return for signing the financial clearance.
“Recently, an increasing number of Egyptian workers has been reporting to the centre complaining about their employers’ refusal to give them their passports or sign the financial clearance document required by the labour ministry so they can go back to their country although their work contracts have expired,” Kallash told The Jordan Times.
“This practice is a clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The regulations represent an obstacle for workers who have lawsuits against their employers and wish to leave the country, as litigation could take months, if not years. In the meantime, the plaintiffs will have to stay in the country and work without a work permit in order to support themselves,” she said.
In turn, Kallash pointed out, this contributes to another problem that the ministry is struggling to manage, namely, the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian labourers working illegally in different sectors across the Kingdom.
According to a recent Tamkeen report, there are currently 280,275 documented migrant workers in Jordan, making up 20 per cent of the workforce.
This percentage does not include undocumented workers, whose numbers are estimated at approximately 200,000, including 135,000 Egyptians.
The labour ministry’s data from 2011 show that 190,481 Egyptian workers held work permits that year, while 135,000 were estimated to have been working without permits.
The ministry’s records show that the agriculture sector, with 86,734 Egyptian labourers, employs more migrant workers than any other sector.
Several Egyptian workers interviewed by The Jordan Times said they had been forced to give up their financial rights just to be allowed to leave the country, while others said they came to work in the Kingdom on a contract signed with an unknown employer whom they cannot contact to obtain the needed certifications.
Mohammad Mahmoud arrived in the Kingdom over a year ago to work at a bakery. His work permit expired last week and his employer owes him one month’s pay, but he cannot leave the country because the bakery’s owner refuses to return his passport.
“My father died during the holy month of Ramadan and my employer refused to let me leave to attend the funeral, fearing that I would not come back since my contract was still valid,” the 24-year-old said.
“Now that my work permit has expired, he refuses to renew it or to pay me my dues unless I work another month for free.”
Mahmoud, who said he was paid JD220 a month, stressed that he will not leave without obtaining his financial rights and will fight for as long as it takes, even if it means staying and working illegally in the meantime.
During his one-year contract, Mahmoud said, he and the 13 other Egyptian workers working at the same bakery were never allowed to take days off, and even on Fridays, their employer used to deduct the hours they spent at prayers from their salaries.
Although the law requires employers to subscribe their staff at the Social Security Corporation, Mahmoud said his employer unregistered them three months before their one-year contracts had expired, meaning their payments to the SSC will not be refunded since its regulations do not allow the corporation to return funds to subscribers registered for less than 12 months.
Khaled Sharqawi, who has been working in the country for the past 11 years, said he has never met his employer.
“Before I came to Jordan I had some correspondence with another worker who managed to get me a contract from a local employer for JD600,” the 32-year-old noted, adding that since coming to work here in 2001, he has paid a “broker” to renew his work permit each year.
The new regulations, however, require his employer to appear in person at a labour office to renew his work permit, meaning that the Egyptian worker has been stuck in limbo, unable to contact his employer or leave the country, since his work permit expired in May.
The Tamkeen report showed that workers like Sharqawi pay between JD600 and JD1,000 to obtain contracts and work permits through middlemen, adding that this problem is particularly prevalent in the agricultural sector.
An official at the labour ministry, who spoke to The Jordan Times on condition of anonymity, said the ministry was aware of these problems and was trying to find ways to address them.