When she left the Philippines to work in Jordan, Rosa (not her real name) took two mobile phones with her. She knew that one of them would be confiscated by the recruitment agency that brings women like her to the Middle East to work as housekeepers, nannies and caretakers. The other one she kept hidden in her bra.
Her phone was the only way of communicating with her siblings. Supporting them was main reason why she accepted a job in Jordan, tens of thousands of kilometres away from home.
Rosa started working as live-in maid for a Jordanian family. She worked long hours, had to be available all the time and wasn’t allowed to leave the house.
“For three months I wasn’t paid a salary. When my boss tried to rape me I ran away,” she says.
Migrant domestic workers come to Jordan under a sponsorship system known as kafala, which ties the worker’s legal residency status to their employer. Common in many Middle Eastern countries, the kafala system gives employers almost total control over their employees’ lives. It has been described by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as a “contemporary form of slavery.”
After she ran away from her first employer, Rosa was sent by her agency to another home but the second family she worked for didn’t treat her much better.
“The son was 16 years old and used to hit me and shout at me,” says Rosa while fighting back tears. “I became very depressed. I wanted to die.”
“I fought against my boss for my dignity”
There are 50,000 migrant domestic workers registered in Jordan, but the number is likely to be much higher since thousands work irregularly. They come from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Uganda, and the overwhelming majority of them are women.
Two-year contracts are offered to domestic workers who expect to be paid enough to send money home to their families. While many get the salaries they are promised, others end up trapped in situations of abuse and exploitation.
Human rights organisations have documented employers beating domestic workers, locking them inside the house, and depriving them of food and medical care in Jordan. The non-payment of promised wages, confiscation of passports and long hours without rest were considered widespread.
“I climbed up the windows and thought about jumping, but because I had to take care of my brother and sister I fought back. They were counting on me. They depended on me to finish university,” says Rosa.
The ability to keep in touch with her siblings, to know they were attending university and were doing well in the Philippines, helped Rosa cling to life. She stepped away from the window and decided to demand her rights. “I fought against my boss for my dignity,” she says.
Isolated in their employers’ homes with few opportunities to form friendships and establish social networks, live-in domestic workers are more likely to resort to suicide when facing desperate situations.
“The only thing I had was my phone close to my chest,” says Rosa. Now working as a cleaning lady at a non-governmental organisation in Amman, she describes her current working conditions as a “dream” because she has insurance, social security and “a little good salary.”
For the past years, Rosa has also been using her phone to connect with other domestic workers from the Philippines and to support them whenever they are in trouble.
“I love to help other domestic workers because their experience is my experience,” says Rosa. “If they have a problem I tell them to fight, to stay strong.”
Online support and solidarity
Rosa and her group of friends, all women from the Philippines, run online support and solidarity groups. Through Facebook and WhatsApp groups they raise awareness about domestic workers’ rights, translate documents and important information and keep in touch with other Filipino workers in Jordan.
“We use these groups to help each other,” explains Rosa. Women contact them to ask for advice or to seek help whenever they run into trouble with their employers.
“If the situation is very serious we [contact] the embassy. If we can solve it within our group we try to figure it out and solve it ourselves. There is a lot of solidarity between us,” she adds.
Not all workers, however, are able to reach out for help and benefit from the same kind of solidarity. While the Filipino community is well-organised and generally well-informed about workers’ rights, domestic workers can feel isolated, especially if communications are restricted and if they are not allowed to leave their employers’ homes.
“The [recruitment] agency often takes away our phones,” says Mary, a friend of Rosa and also a domestic worker from the Philippines. “They took my phone and told me I was not allowed to use it.”
According to Jordanian law, domestic workers are allowed to keep their passports, have the right to contact their families and should have regulated working hours and a weekly day off. But not all recruitment agencies and employers are following the laws. In 2003, Jordan became the first Arab country to use standard contracts for domestic workers and in 2008 it was the first country in the region to extend labour protections to domestic workers, but human rights organisations say these measures have been largely ineffective. Because of the difficulty of carrying out inspections in private homes, laws protecting domestic workers are often not enforced.
The importance of informal networks
Tamkeen, a Jordanian non-profit organisation providing support to migrant workers, found that despite legislative reforms carried out in Jordan over the last decade domestic workers’ rights continue to be systematically violated. A report published in 2015 found that many were prevented from contacting their families and continued to be exposed to physical, verbal and sexual abuse.
Rosa and her friends are also part of a network that holds awareness-raising sessions focused on domestic workers’ rights and labour legislation. The network coordinates with the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), launched in 2009 to mobilise domestic workers to fight for decent working conditions. One of the main goals of the IDWF was to fight for an ILO Convention to protect the rights of domestic workers.
“Because of our strong determination we signed a treaty with other domestic workers all over the world,” says Faith (not her real name), who is from the Philippines and has been working as a housekeeper and caretaker for over two decades.
A convention setting labour standards for domestic workers and protecting them from violence was adopted by the ILO in 2011. The Philippines became the second country in the world to ratify the convention in 2012. Jordan voted on it but has not yet ratified the convention.
There is no trade union of domestic workers in the country and Jordanian law doesn’t allow migrant workers to vote or to be elected in unions. So the informal network established in Jordan offers an opportunity for domestic workers to support each other.
A leading advocate for domestic workers’ rights, Faith talks excitedly about her activism and recent achievements made in Jordan. But then she looks at her clock. “I have to go,” she excuses herself. “My madam is a diplomat. I have to cook their dinner tonight.”
Her friends stay behind in a cafe in central Amman, debating how their work cleaning, cooking and taking care of children and elderly is undervalued in Jordan.
“We are treated like servants. Not even servants, slaves. The main question is why do they treat us like this?” asks Mary.
“The employers just think about their money and tell us to work, work, work, work,” answers Rosa. “But our work is so important. Why isn’t it appreciated?”