'Invisible people': the working and living conditions of undocumented immigrants in Jordan during the COVID-19 crisis
Cevdet Acu, University of Exeter, UK
While the coronavirus has spread indiscriminately across the world, the negative effects have been felt differently, as COVID-19 has amplified conditions for some of the most vulnerable groups which, in Jordan, are mainly undocumented immigrant workers. Workers can lose legal status when they leave a permitted job for one in an underground economy, or become irregular workers because their visas allow residence but not employment. Undocumented workers are not fully protected by the legal regulations and are frequently exploited by employers through wage theft, sexual harassment and unsafe working environments. Unfair treatment such as low pay, inhumane work hours and denied payment for working overtime are regular occurrences in their lives, but beyond this, undocumented workers must now grapple with fears of transmitting COVID-19 and the restrictions that have come with it.
According to the United Nations, there were approximately 272 million people living outside the country where they were born in 2019, up from 153 million in 1990. While there is no clear data on the number of undocumented immigrant workers in the global labour market, local economies are able to provide more accurate estimates. While no one knows exactly how many undocumented workers there are in Jordan, the Minister of Labour Ali al-Ghazzawi estimated that there were roughly 800,000 undocumented foreign workers in Jordan in December 2016. If accurate, this means that undocumented foreign workers represent 40 percent of the workforce in Jordan. The manufacturing facilities in Jordan’s Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs) are mostly staffed by foreign workers from Egypt, Syria and Asian countries like the Philippines and Sri Lanka and according to Labour Ministry spokesperson Mohammad Khatib, Egyptian workers account for 60 percent of the total number of guest labourers while Syrians represent 10 percent. Regionally, the biggest percentage of foreign workers were registered in Irbid, followed by Zarqa, Balqa and Amman.
Maria is one of the undocumented workers in Jordan, and while each person’s experience is different, her story provides a glimpse of the lived experience undocumented workers are going through in Jordan during the current pandemic.
The story of an 'invisible' person
Originally from the Philippines, Maria wound up in Jordan after lack of economic support forced her to drop out of university. Without an education, conditions of poverty, unemployment and the absence of a decent standard of living led her to explore options abroad, where she was finally recruited by an agency licensed by Jordan’s Ministry of Labour. Thanks to this agency, Maria secured a job as a housemaid where she worked for around a year until she was forced to flee an inhumane working environment. Although Maria had a contract which guaranteed her one day off per week, her employer did not allow her to go out alone – leaving her isolated without friends in the home for almost a year. Most gravely, however, was the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of the husband employer which the agency did not respond to after Maria confided in them about what was going on in the home. Needless to say, her employer did not provide a decent working condition which is one of the fundamental rights of employees, as International Labour Organizations (ILO) highlights.
In Jordan, a domestic worker who escapes from their employer’s house or takes up employment elsewhere from where they were initially permitted is considered illegal and becomes subject to detention and deportation. In other words, Maria became an undocumented immigrant worker in Jordan because she fled a work environment where her human rights were being violated. Unfortunately, her decision to leave her original post happened at the same time the COVID-19 was taking a hold of the world. Nevertheless, Maria found a part-time job with the help of her friends as a waitress in different hotels. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, she was barely able to work a month from mid-March to end of April 2020. In a recent conversation Maria tearfully highlighted: 'I have some saving money that I am using for two months, but it is not that much a lot. I have only a small amount of money, but I have too much expense now. I have not sent any money to my parents for two months and this is another main problem. I have two kids, and they need money to buy food as well I always think about them'.
Maria has been working in Jordan for two years, sending money home each month to her parents as they rely on her to survive. However, due to the COVID-19 crisis, Maria has now been out of work for more than a month. Though the partial lockdown was implemented to contain the spread of coronavirus in Jordan, it has also increased Maria’s vulnerability as she has not had any income during this time. In addition to not being able to work, Maria’s undocumented status precludes her from applying for any social or economic benefit.
The Jordanian government loosened COVID-19 restrictions as of the first week of May, which means people are slowly getting back to work. However, Maria worries that she would be in trouble if the police or a related authority were to check her ID as she does not have any legal document, not even a passport. This concern is exacerbated by the fact that 105 undocumented immigrant workers were arrested in January 2020. Maria’s undocumented status is further complicated by the fact that her passport was withheld by her first employer. Though she was not sure if this was legal at the time, Maria did not feel she had a real choice in the matter as she felt like her job would be at risk if she said no. Now, Maria must pay 1.500 Jordanian Dinar to get her passport back. Due to her vulnerable status, Maria is not comfortable when she needs to go outside and feels nervous when she sees a police officer. The only thing that surpasses the stress that overcomes her each time she walks on the street is her fundamental need to work so she can send money to her family in the Philippines.
Although the COVID-19 crisis did not create these issues for Maria, it has worsened these conditions for her and the many undocumented workers who were already struggling with low wages and poor working conditions. Criminalising undocumented workers will not stop people from hiring them, but it does make them more exploitable. All people including undocumented immigrants are entitled to fundamental human rights protections and non-governmental organisations working to mitigate undocumented people’s challenges should aim to educate them about their rights. By empowering them to speak out against exploitation and other violations of labour laws, maybe undocumented people in Jordan, and elsewhere in the world, can get a little closer to having their universal human rights and dignity protected, and be better prepared for future crises.
Author’s note: Maria’s name was changed upon her request to protect her identity.
Cevdet Acu is a PhD candidate in Economics at University of Exeter. His focus is on the macroeconomic influence of displaced people on receiving countries. His research is concerned with the question of how Syrian refugees impact the labour market in host countries, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon.
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