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Opinion

Why rebuilding Jordan's social contract is crucial to agricultural workers’ rights beyond COVID-19

ILO

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the significant contribution of essential workers worldwide. Among them, agricultural workers in Jordan have toiled in fields and factories throughout the crisis to ensure food supplies continue undisrupted. COVID-19 has exposed the unfair working conditions endured by so many of our frontline workers. The extent of inequality and labour law rights violations in the last year alone have demonstrated greater deterioration of agricultural working conditions in Jordan amid the pandemic.

Jordan’s agricultural sector contributes to approx. 6% of national GDP and employs around 210,000 people, more than half of which are rural women and over a quarter are migrant workers (62,000). Despite its significance, the agricultural sector in Jordan lacks effective governance or adequate statutory frameworks as the labour law does not apply to the sector. Government plans and strategies put in place to improve the working conditions in this sector are no match for the long-standing problems - challenges in marketing agricultural produce, setting minimum crop prices and controlling intermediary buyers. Poor governance can lead to a sharp decrease in product value, failure to attract investments and competition between agricultural products.

Local Agricultural Law stipulates the duties and functions of the Ministry of Agriculture plus regulation of the Jordan Farmers Union (JFU). Yet these frameworks fail to improve working conditions and provide the minimum standards of decent work for its workers. For instance, the Labour Code of 2008 stipulates that a specific regulation must be issued to include agricultural. For years, civil society organisations have made draft proposals, calling on the government to issue such regulation yet none has been issued. This undermines workers in this sector and disproportionately affects vulnerable groups working within it - including women, refugees, and migrant workers.

Unprotected by the Labour Code, some workers have established an independent union to represent them and advocate for their rights. However, successive governments have refused to acknowledge the union’s legitimacy, deliberately excluding it from social dialogues and government initiatives.

Persistent problems within the sector call into question the intentions of these governments which have failed to resolve them, and sour public trust in the system at large. Government procrastination around the implementation of protections for agricultural workers is unjustified and merely reflects its tissue-thin commitment to finding solutions for workers' problems.

Meanwhile, poor working conditions continue to drive away investments year on year and the sector continues to suffer despite Jordan’s fertile land and suitable climate. The low production cost, labour costs and availability of local and Arab markets should ensure high demand for agricultural products, and attract investment in services essential to support this sector (such as logistical services among others), yet Jordan’s continue continues to lose out.

The shortcomings and ineffectiveness of labour legislation, ongoing abuse of agricultural workers’ rights and deterioration of the sector’s infrastructure echo a broader problem: the collapse of Jordan's social contract. A new social contract in Jordan that redefines the responsibilities of each interested party/ stakeholder and urges them to fully assume them could drive solutions to problems within this sector and many others. A new social contract has the potential to enshrine the rights of all individuals across the nation - both citizens and residents – and ensure smooth governance processes are guaranteed by the state. A comprehensive review of laws regulating the sector is critical to ensure a just transition towards a new social contract. If it could successfully unite all government institutions, the private sector and workers, it could have the power to overcome the agricultural sector’s legacy of neglect.

Such a review should:

  1. Ensure labour rights, as stipulated by the International Labour Organization (ILO), and eliminate all forms of discrimination among all workers, regardless of nationality or legal status.
  2. Strengthen the rule of law to criminalise economic transactions that permit governmental corruption and undermine efforts to restore trust between authorities and the people.
  3. Improve working conditions in the agricultural sector in a bid to attract investment and boost the sector's contribution to GDP, while preserving the rights and gains of the its workers.

The private sector can play an important role by promoting principles of fair and mutual gain among economic parties and encouraging equality, justice and economic well-being, free from corruption. This would help restore and maintain public trust. The private sector bears responsibilities in understanding the importance of upholding decent work and ensuring human rights are respected and protected throughout supply chains.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are a crucial roadmap for businesses in addressing any negative impact that results from their operations. This responsibility remains unchanged even in the absence of a domestic legal framework that protects workers, as is the case in Jordan’s agricultural sector. In accordance with these principles, business must take additional measures to protect vulnerable groups such as women, refugees and migrant workers, especially during exceptional circumstances such as the COVID-19 outbreak.

Discussions in Jordan around the new social contract have risen exponentially since Prime Minister Omar Razzaz came to office. Pressing questions like what does a good new social contract look like in the context of Jordan? What is it expected to achieve? What are the pre-existing conditions that need to be worked on first? Who are the key stakeholders? And more still need to be answered. This presents a golden opportunity for leaders in the private sector and reformists in Jordan to start a dialogue process that ensures the private sector sits at the table and takes the responsibility to ensure human rights are embedded in all business operations in ways that help solving pressing problems like the high unemployment rates and contributes to the realisation of national development agendas.

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