On 17 March 2020, the government of Jordan began a series of coronavirus protection measures. These included a broad shutdown on movement, subsequently relaxed in favour of private-sector restrictions. Economic consequences appeared almost instantly: worker dismissals, unpaid wages, and business shutdowns occurred en masse. This prompted the government to approve a series of emergency decisions, known as Defense Orders, which set protections for workers’ rights. Daily-wage workers soon became the object of larger campaigns from labour activists and civil society organisations, motivating responses from the government on providing in-kind and cash assistance for Jordanian daily workers. These were also complemented by Defense Orders 6 and 9, both of which targeted workers made vulnerable by the crisis.
Very quickly after Defence Order 6, which protected workers’ wages and set conditions on worker dismissals, Defence Order 9 was also evoked. This set out a number of protections for daily-wage workers, including the right to claim unemployment benefits and make small withdrawals and loans from their social security accounts. While this order extended benefits to migrant workers, it ignores the broad reality of what migrant work looks like in Jordan: these workers are mostly daily-wage, informal workers, who are not making payments to social security accounts and thus cannot benefit from the extraordinary social protection measures. Informal migrant workers in Jordan are thus left in limbo, following years of being mostly excluded from the formal social protection system in Jordan with little formalised reprieve from the losses in wages due to inaccessible work opportunities.
Migrant work in Jordan makes up nearly half of the country’s workforce. Migrant workers work across a number of Jordan’s economic sectors, including agriculture, construction, manufacturing, accommodation, and food services. While these all have incidences of informality, agriculture and construction are especially dependent on daily-wage work schemes and are mostly staffed by non-Jordanians. These are especially essential sectors. While Jordan’s agriculture sector makes up only 6% of GDP, it is an important contributor to other sectors including both important local producers and exporters, such as the agro-food sector.
The importance of the agricultural sector has been especially recognised in lockdown periods as it has been able to sufficiently cover the Kingdom’s needs. Migrant workers make up the grand majority of workers in this sector – 85% and 92% of workers in the livestock and crop production sectors respectively are non-Jordanian. Agriculture work was named essential from the beginning of lockdown to support the local food supply, reflecting the economy’s dependency on foreign workers for the production of essential goods. Yet workers in this field are entirely informalised due to their exclusion from the Labour Code and the seasonal nature of their work. Similar dynamics prevail in the construction sector, where daily-wage and informal work makes up the majority of work opportunities for low-income migrant workers. Very few construction companies take measures to guarantee that their contractors commit timely payment of wages and observation of labour standards, thus worsening conditions for migrant workers in the sector that otherwise have no legal recourse to ensure their rights are safeguarded. For many, they are not only excluded from formal social protection mechanisms but also from proper work authorisation. Due to the nature of daily-wage work in this sector, many non-Jordanian workers work without work permits – or with incorrect documents – placing them at further risk in their day-to-day work.
While government responses included social protection measures to protect these workers, much of the protection was directed towards Jordanian citizens. For instance, even in the reopening of private sector operations in May 2020, the government mandated that private sector establishments wishing to open their doors had to employ at least 75% Jordanian staff. This largely neglected the reality that migrant workers make up a large segment of the labour market and thereby encouraged layoffs of foreign workers in small establishments, as well as maintaining conditions of informal employment for foreign workers due to quota. Furthermore, this crisis was used as an opportunity to repatriate foreign workers: recently the Ministry of Labour supported the repatriation of migrant workers by setting up online application systems to support their returns as well as the expedition of any social security payments that (formal) migrant workers are owed, within 72 hours. This has previously been a long process that was riddled with bureaucratic hurdles, often leaving migrant workers with little opportunity to claim their rights. This is a positive move that ensures that returning migrant workers have their rights respected. The formulation and support for this policy and the resolution of an issue that has been problematic for years displays a willingness to support migrant workers in ensuring access to their rights – but seemingly only when exiting the country.
A long, pre-existing trend of excluding vulnerable workers, especially those that are seemingly expendable, has shown its weaknesses in a time where work opportunities are scarce and access is difficult. Reliance on the private sector to provide for workers in a struggling economy only made worse by the COVID-19 crisis has proven itself an unsustainable and exploitative practice that fails to guarantee the rights, livelihood, and safety of migrants. The loss of income in this period and the risk to which they are exposed when working show that it is time to support the inclusion of migrant workers in formalised labour codes and social protection systems.
Shaddin Almasri is a recent graduate of the MSc Migration, Mobility and Development programme at SOAS, University of London where she focused her studies and thesis on foreign aid conditionality and migrant and refugee labour inclusion and impacts in Jordan and across the MENA region.