Workers at risk: Labour rights in Jordan during COVID-19
Hundreds of millions of workers around the world have borne the brunt of the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Between April and December 2020, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked the impact on workers in Jordan, many of whom already find themselves in vulnerable circumstances due to their migrant status, systemic labour exploitation and irresponsible conduct by employers.
- Companies were named in nine cases of labour abuse, compared to only once between July 2019 and March 2020.
- Lack of occupational Health & Safety measures was the most common issue, reported in five cases affecting nearly 2,500 workers.
- Non-payment of wages was a recurring issue, appearing in four cases affecting nearly 350 workers
- Approximately 3,000 migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh and India, were affected by the recorded allegations
Human and labour rights abuse in Jordan is under-reported in almost all economic sectors. A culture of fear means most media coverage and local organisations’ reports about abuses refer only to general allegations, rarely identifying the company involved, the number of workers affected or the sector where the abuses take place. Organisations reporting on human rights abuses often do so without details like company names or number of affected workers, for fear of retribution by companies or elements of government.
The press likewise faces severe restrictions, expanded during the pandemic, on what they can report without risking libel accusations. Even the government’s own reporting lacks detail – the Ministry of Labour reported it received 52,000 complaints of labour abuse between March and September 2020 through its digital platform Hemayeh, but it has not publicly reported any details on these cases, nor on any government response.
Although lack of transparency continues to be a challenge when it comes to data collection in Jordan, between April and December 2020 Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (the Resource Centre) published nine specific cases of abuse where named companies were implicated, affecting approximately 3,000 workers. These abuses ranged from non-payment of wages to lack of occupational safety and health (OSH) precautions leading to widespread COVID-19 outbreaks. In comparison, the Resource Centre recorded only one specific case of abuse in the nine months prior to the pandemic.
Since April 2020, we have invited six companies in Jordan to respond to specific allegations of labour abuses concerning their own workers, and one company regarding its business relationship with a company accused of labour abuse. We received only one response.
The significant increase in reported allegations can be attributed to two factors: escalating abuse resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in media and NGO reporting on longstanding abuses that have been brought to light as a result of increased public scrutiny of business performance. Although reporting has increased, the cases presented in this paper represent only a snapshot of labour abuse faced by workers in Jordan. The majority of abuse goes unreported, and when businesses are named in an allegation, it is often difficult to find information about the companies involved.
This increase in publicly available information has allowed us to undertake an analysis of the trends in human and labour rights abuse in Jordan and provide recommendations for businesses and governments to tackle this growing issue.
Jordan’s most precarious workers
Migrant workers make up nearly 50% of Jordan’s workforce (nearly one million) and are among the country’s most vulnerable to harm. They work in multiple sectors such as construction, apparel and agriculture, but are not fully protected by national labour law. Migrant workers lack access to social protection, and many are already living below the poverty line, causing additional difficulties during the pandemic. The measures taken by the government to tackle the economic consequences of the pandemic extend, in theory, their protection to migrant workers. However, they ignore the reality that most are day labourers and informal workers who do not make any social security payments. As such, many migrant workers did not receive financial assistance and do not receive government support.
A large number of Jordan’s garment factories are located in the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ). More than 76,000 workers, mostly migrants from South and Southeast Asia, are employed in the garment sector. Women represent the majority of the sector’s workforce. Generally, migrant workers of the QIZs face tough working conditions, usually working longer hours for lower wages than their Jordanian counterparts. However, during the pandemic all workers in the sector, including Jordanian workers, faced exceptionally difficult economic circumstances.
Many garment factories inside the QIZs halted their operations due to the economic consequences of the pandemic as several major apparel brands cancelled or postponed their orders or amended payment terms. This has forced many garment factories to lay off migrant workers or stop paying their wages. Consequently, many migrant workers working in the QIZs have lost their jobs and been stranded in Jordan for months without income.
In addition, COVID-19 related OSH measures have been implemented insufficiently by garment factories during the pandemic. Factory workers have not been supplied sufficient personal protective equipment necessary to protect against the virus’ spread and their living quarters are overcrowded, affecting their ability to practise social distancing. When the government allowed garment factories to resume their production in April, only workers who live inside the QIZs were permitted to work. At the same time, workers’ movement was restricted to prevent them leaving QIZs, affecting their ability to access basic supplies.
Pre-existing issues of poor working and living conditions for agricultural workers have worsened. Labour law does not apply to agricultural workers, the majority of whom are informal migrant, refugee and women workers. The absence of a legal framework means employers are not under a statutory obligation to provide a decent work environment or to determine working hours in exceptional circumstances such as the pandemic. Outdoor working hours and conditions are unregulated, leaving workers exposed to heatstroke and other illnesses at work.
In addition, workers lack protections such as employment agreements, minimum wage, social and health insurance, occupational safety and health measures. There is an absence of workers’ unions and representation, and a lack of accountability from the government. Agricultural workers only have one independent union which is not acknowledged by the government. This prevents workers from exercising their rights, including their right to freedom of association. Women agricultural workers are acutely at risk of labour abuse as they receive low wages compared with men and are not provided with adequate OSH equipment necessary for their protection.
Migrant workers also face major barriers in accessing remedy for harms. This can be attributed to challenges such as their legal status (documented or undocumented), lack of legal awareness, lack of financial means and lack of adequate grievance mechanisms for workers to lodge complaints.
Impact of COVID-19 measures
The COVID-19 pandemic came at a difficult time, with Jordan already facing economic challenges resulting from a refugee influx, high youth unemployment, low female representation and high levels of informal employment. The government took some of the world’s strictest measures to slow the spread of the virus, including a nationwide comprehensive curfew, travel ban, closure of factories and the introduction of economic measures to protect both workers and employers. Some steps have been criticised by human rights groups which argue that these orders have left the most vulnerable workers, such as migrants, refugee and women, to pay the price for the devastation wreaked by COVID-19.
A new regulation was adopted on 31 May allowing employers facing financial strain to deduct up to 60% from their workers’ wages in the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, such as tourism, service, transport and apparel, without needing to seek permission from the government or workers. This regulation applies to workers who cannot do their jobs remotely, under the condition their salaries do not fall under 150 Jordanian Dinars (USD 211) per month. The government will not pay the difference, leaving workers with drastically reduced wages. The order also obliges employers to renew fixed-term contracts but only for Jordanian workers, excluding Jordan’s large population of migrant and refugee workers.
Forms of abuse
Of the nine cases in which companies were named, workers made five allegations concerning OSH violations (including one case resulting in death), four allegations concerning non-payment of wages or overtime pay, two cases concerning restrictions on workers’ freedom of association and one allegation of sexual assault against women workers.
Occupational safety and health (OSH)
Nearly 2,537 workers were affected in the five cases of OSH violations, most of whom became infected with COVID-19 allegedly as a result of overcrowded working or housing conditions where social distancing was impossible.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed gaps in the implementation of standards in Jordan. Several experts and human rights groups have raised serious concerns regarding the implementation of OSH measures in the workplace during the pandemic. Tamkeen for Legal Aid and Human Rights reported a total of five worker deaths and the injury of six workers in the first half of 2020, all of whom are Egyptians working in the construction sector. Given that many constructions sites were closed during the pandemic, the fact there were still five deaths and six injuries is cause for concern, reflecting the lack of OSH measures in the workplace. However, it is frustratingly difficult to paint a full picture as most reports contained only general allegations and rarely identified the number of workers affected by the absence of OSH measures in each sector.
In October, 600 COVID-19 infections were recorded among migrant workers from Bangladesh at a garment factory in Zarqa governorate. Allegations have been raised by local organisations that workers contracted the virus while being transferred from one factory branch to another. The factory denied the allegation workers were infected during the transfer and instead declared management had taken positive action by closing the factory, granting paid leave to all Jordanian workers at the factory and isolating migrant workers either inside the factory or in special isolated accommodation at their employer’s expense. In response to the incident, the Ministry of Labour initiated a comprehensive investigation to inspect all garment factories and assess their implementation of OSH standards. Local organisations have criticised a lack of formal inspection of factories due to the limited number of inspectors.
In November, 1,920 migrant workers from Bangladesh and India were tested positive for COVID-19 at Sydney Garment Factory - 85% of the factory’s workers. The Resource Centre was unable to find any information about the factory. Workers also alleged, according to NGO Impact International, that overcrowding inside worker accommodation was a key cause of the spread of the infection.
In September, 17 female workers in three garment factories - Hi-Tech, Classic Fashion and Almafhoum in Ajloun - were allegedly exposed to dangerous working conditions and were denied the right to sick and annual leave which caused them serious health issues.
Hi-Tech responded to our inquiry, denying all allegations and outlining their OSH policy, while Classic Fashion did not respond. We were unable to find contact details for Almafhoum.
Also in September, we recorded one case concerning OSH violations in the construction sector. A local community reported workers at Teejan Trading and Constructing were exposed to unsafe working conditions due to a lack of effective safety equipment while working in hazardous conditions, and that workers lacked health insurance. The Resource Centre contacted Teejan for a response, but the company did not respond.
Non-payment of wages and overtime pay
A total of 350 workers across four cases alleged non-payment of wages or overtime. In July, 340 Sri Lankan garment workers in the Alcara Camelwega industrial estate reported they had not been paid wages due for five months and requested repatriation to their home country.
Two mining companies, Arab Potash Company (in October) and Jordan Phosphate Mines Company (in September), allegedly failed to pay overtime to their workers, including women and migrant workers. Workers at Arab Potash also claimed they were subjected to discrimination with regard to promotions and wages, which they say were awarded based on loyalty and favouritism rather than qualifications and experience.
The Resource Centre contacted both companies for responses; they did not respond. We also tried to contact two companies with business relationships with Jordan Phosphate Mines: Indian Potash Limited and Kisan International Trading. We were unable to find information about Kisan International; Indian Potash did not respond. Arab Potash Company and the Union of Mining workers later reached a private agreement, under the auspices of the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions, to end the dispute between the company and workers.
Finally, in August, we recorded a case concerning allegations garment workers at factories reportedly supplying US apparel brands did not receive regular pay for six months. Women garment workers also reported being sexually assaulted at work by their managers. The article did not identify the number of workers affected nor the factories where the assaults took place.
Restrictions on freedom of association and collective bargaining
Barriers to the freedom of association and collective bargaining were cited in two cases. Workers at Arab Potash claimed the company used union-busting tactics to prevent workers from effectively organising and harassed and threatened worker representatives.
The Jordanian government has also restricted freedom of association during the pandemic. On 25 July, Amman’s Attorney General issued an order closing the Teachers’ Union for two years. The Union’s acting head and all its board members were arrested. The Attorney General also issued a comprehensive gag order prohibiting publication of information about the situation and all comments in the media, including social media. The Resource Centre has compiled extensive coverage about this incident, including two reports produced by anonymous local organisations in Jordan.
It is clear a significant number of businesses in Jordan are not meeting their human rights responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the human rights risks already facing workers in Jordan. A lack of transparency in public reporting, failure to respond to allegations and inadequate grievance mechanisms for workers to lodge complaints has facilitated impunity for unscrupulous companies. This has impacted workers' wages and health, prevented effective assessment of the scale and scope of abuse and denied workers access to remedy. To compound concerns, the abuses we reported during the first nine months of the COVID-19 crisis are just a fraction of those faced by workers on the ground.
- Businesses should ensure all workers are treated equally without any distinction on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin in line with the ILO fundamental Conventions.
- Businesses should ensure all workers are provided with adequate health and safety protections to minimise their risk of exposure to COVID-19 and other occupational health and safety risks and have access to the healthcare when needed.
- Businesses should commit to pay all workers who contract COVID-19, or have to quarantine, their full salary for the duration for the period they cannot work and ensure workers do not feel coerced into resigning or taking unpaid leave.
- Businesses should reduce overcrowding by providing additional accommodation to enable social distancing among workers.
- Suppliers from QIZs should review all aspects of OSH – from factory to dormitory and canteen. Brands sourcing from QIZs should insist on these measures in their contractual agreements and as part of independent factory assessments.
- Brands sourcing from QIZs should act immediately to improve their purchasing practices for the pandemic and recovery, including timely payments and no demands for discounts. Suppliers must ensure wages and full benefits are paid to workers and publicly reported.
- Businesses should refrain from interfering with or harassing labour leaders working to organise employees. Companies should publicly support stronger state protections for freedom of association and collective bargaining, including ratification and implementation of all ILO conventions.
- Businesses should adopt specific policies to protect the rights of workers, including migrant and refugee workers, in line with the UNGPs and ILO conventions, and ensure these polices are implemented through their operations.
- Businesses should ensure all workers, including migrant workers, have access to effective grievance mechanisms that meet the effectiveness criteria set out by the UNGPs, and communicate these mechanisms to both workers and external stakeholders such as local NGOs.
The Government of Jordan
- Government should ensure all workers, including migrant workers and informal workers, are included in COVID-19 financial protection measures.
- Government should stop the expansion of informal sectors and strengthen workers’ rights, including those of migrants and refugees, especially in sectors with high levels of labour abuse and vulnerability due to the pandemic, such as the garment and agriculture sectors.
- Government should initiate a national dialogue for key sectors regarding their approach to the pandemic and the hope for a just recovery. This should include all stakeholders, including businesses, unions and civil society, with the aim of developing measures and policies to ensure that all workers, regardless of nationality, enjoy their labour rights without discrimination.
- Government should strengthen inspection capacity and adopt an approach which is gender and migrant sensitive.
- Government should ratify the ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise and strengthen workers’ ability to exercise these rights.
- Government should take immediate measures to support the most vulnerable workers amid the pandemic, in particular migrant, refugees and female workers, and ensure that they have access to effective remedy.
- Government should strengthen the exercise of political and civic rights and prevent the shrinking of space for civil society to report on labour abuses.