By Natascha Tahabsem
BU News Service
AMMAN — The Jordan Chapter Organization (JCO), a non-profit providing aid for Filipina domestic workers in Jordan, has been awash with calls for help since the early phase of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Marilou Sibayan, JCO founder and president, said over 100 Filipinas sought her help during the pandemic, many of whom were stay-in domestic workers. The complaints included allegations of being starved by their Jordanian employers, denied vacation time, mistreated and in some cases, forced to escape their employers’ houses due to abusive environments.
When a runaway domestic worker appeared at her doorstep one night begging for food, Sibayan decided to form a team of frontline volunteers to provide 300 relief packages and financial aid for struggling Filipina workers across the kingdom.
“For me, the most difficult part was when my co-Filipinas came and asked for my help,” said Sibayan. “I kept searching for sponsors, for people to donate money so that I could feed them, which in-and-of-itself was a hard thing to do.”
When she could not help the women herself, she referred them to the Philippines Overseas Labor Office (POLO), where they received food, clothes, and legal assistance. Since the pandemic hit Jordan, she sent 137 Filipinas to the POLO office, where they filed requests to return to the Philippines.
Since the pandemic struck Jordan, the government of the Philippines and the Jordan International Organization for Migration (IOM) donated 67 tickets to send women back to their country.
But not all migrant domestic workers in Jordan were lucky enough to receive help.
According to a 2019 report published by Tamkeen, a legal organization combating human trafficking in the kingdom, the number of migrant domestic workers in Jordan is estimated at 70,000, with only 54,000 legally registered as domestic workers. Unregistered workers are susceptible to being arrested and jailed because of their illegal status.
Most of Jordan’s stay-in migrant domestic workers come from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Bangladesh. They enter the kingdom under a sponsorship system called the kafala, which gives Jordanian employers, or kafeels, absolute control over the worker’s legal residency status and mobility.
Upon arrival, the workers are sent to recruitment agencies where they are assigned to houses based on requests filed by Jordanian employers.
The woman workers are expected to perform tasks such as “cleaning the house, washing utensils and clothes, ironing clothes, cooking, caring for children, caring for the disabled, the sick, and the elderly, and… carry[ing] shopping bags,” according to Tamkeen.
Under kafala’s legal framework some workers are required to stay at the homes of their employers, who often seize the workers’ passports.
They “cannot resign from their positions, transfer employment, or leave the country without obtaining written permission from their employers,” Alia Hindawi, acting director of Jordan’s Business & Human Rights Resource Center, said in a 2020 report published by Civil Society Knowledge Center.
As Sibayan noted, hundreds of the domestic workers run away and seek help from human rights organizations.
“If a domestic worker ‘runs away’, perhaps because her [employer] is abusing her, the kafeel can go to the police station, where she was registered when she arrived in Jordan, and report her as ‘missing’. Then, the police will be looking for her,” said Hindawi. “Many of the human rights infringements happen and continue [to happen] because the employer does not allow the worker to leave the house, which means they’re not able to tell other people if abuse occurs.”
In the latter half of 2019, Tamkeen received 328 cases of domestic workers working in different cities in the kingdom. 109 of these complaints were submitted by Filipina workers.
The complaints included the confiscation of passports, full or partial pay-cuts, and the denial of vacation days, according to a 2020 report published by Tamkeen.
The pandemic has put these workers at a greater disadvantage. Due to the curfew that was imposed by the government in March and the subsequent nationwide lockdown that lasted nearly four months, many of these workers faced worsening living conditions.
Tamkeen said they received a similar number of complaints in 2019, but the nature of the complaints had changed.
The workers reported “increased work pressure as a result of the family staying in the house all day, and the need to continuously disinfect and clean the house, which resulted in them working for 16 hours a day without any breaks.”
Other groups “reported similar working conditions, but also added that their exhaustion was further compounded by the stress of their employers which affected their treatment of the workers as well,” according to the Tamkeen report.
At one point, Tamkeen contacted Jordan’s Combatting Human Trafficking Unit regarding three cases they could not resolve themselves. With the help of the unit, the three women were removed from their employers’ households.
Hala Ayoub, director of the Mira for Maids recruitment agency, said she received similar complaints from some of the workers she recruited during the mid-March to late June quarantine period.
“If the girl faces any trouble at the employer’s house, she calls her parents or family abroad, and they contact us immediately. We then contact the kafeel and ask them to bring the girl back to the agency,” said Ayoub.
Ayoub said in the case where the employer refuses to send the worker back to the agency, she contacts the Ministry of Labour. Then, the Ministry of Labour would contact human trafficking organizations, which help her get the worker back.
In one extreme case, Ayoub had to come to the aid of a worker who was kicked out onto the street during the quarantine.
“The employer didn’t want her, and she didn’t want the employer. They kept fighting until they kicked her out,” she said. “How could they kick her out during a nationwide lockdown? Some people lack humanity, you know. But I sent people, and we took care of the problem.”
The worker was transferred to a different household when the lockdown was lifted in June.
Ayoub defended her agency, saying it doesn’t leave workers in poor living conditions.
“We have an excellent reputation when it comes to this,” Ayoub said. “You can ask about us at the Ministry of Labour and all the embassies.”
On Facebook, her business advertisements read “new and special orders from Ethiopia” and “your comfort is our number one priority.”
Mira for Maids recruitment agency was one of the two agencies that agreed to an interview. Eight others declined to comment.
Ruby Tudio, a Filipina volunteer at the Jordan Chapter Organization, said the early days of the pandemic were especially hard.
“I [read] so many complaints on Facebook,” Tubio said. “Some were about girls getting hurt by their employers, others about girls not being fed. But here in Amman, it is not nearly as bad as the Gulf.”