Photo credit: Zainab Abu Sitta.
Reporter: Zainab Al Faqeer
July 27th, 2020
In February 2018, Egyptian worker Fuad* went to Jordan to seek a livelihood, and his brothers Alaa and Salim accompanied him on this trip. At that time, the three of them signed a formal employment contract as workers on a farm in the southern Jordan Valley in Karak Governorate, and began working there.
However, what the three brothers faced, squandered their dreams of a stable job that secures their needs, as Salim recovers the “psychologically difficult” times, as he describes them, and the mistreatment they were subjected to by the farm owner, not to mention working long hours without rest or vacations, in addition to the discount from their salaries. He tells this to the reporter, adding that they were under constant threat from the employer, every time they demanded their dues.
“We reached a dead end, we could not take it anymore,” says Salim. But they were in constant hesitation and fear of submitting any complaint to the Labor Office, fearing that they would lose their source of livelihood. After 8 months of working in difficult circumstances, they filed a case with the Ghor al-Safi Magistrate’s Criminal Court – with the help of an NGO – In October 2018. In return, the farm owner filed a report of absconding at the Labor Directorate 7 days after the case was filed.
This report monitors the stories of Egyptian workers who have been subjected to labor violations, and some of them have fallen into legal disputes with employers who, in turn, filed absconding reports against workers, which made them illegal workers and deprived them of their right to move and choose their work freely, in the absence of legal controls to protect workers when dealing with such reports.
Absconding Report is Leverage
The former Secretary-General of the Ministry of Labor and Director of the Workers House Center, Lawyer Hamada Abu Najma, believes that some employers exploit the possibility of submitting a report of the worker’s absconding, as a means of exploiting the workers in order to be satisfied with their reality, and as a tool to threaten them and pressure them not to file a complaint about the violation of their rights. He considers this unfair to the workers, and if the worker refuses to do a job that is not within his competence, or rejects the violations committed against him, the employer will threaten him to file a report of his absconding, and in these cases the report is malicious.
This is what actually happened with 9 Egyptian workers, including Fuad and his two brothers, as their complaint to the court included rights violations by the employer, such as working extra hours without pay, not getting the leave stipulated in the labor law, and getting a salary of JOD150, in contrast to the amount agreed upon in the contract (JOD190), according to the explanation of the lawyer for the 9 workers, Mahmoud al-Aqtash, who points out that there is a suspicion of human trafficking in the case of these workers to subject them to forced labor. Forced labor is a form of exploitation of persons according to the Prevention of Human Trafficking Law.
Although the workers resorted to the Egyptian embassy, it did not take any action in their favor, and asked them to wait until the end of their contracts with the farm owner. The author of the report tried – through phone calls and a visit to the embassy in Amman – to obtain clarification from the embassy about its position on the case of these workers, but it refused to comment on the matter.
This situation prompted the farm owner to take advantage of the obstacles imposed by the absconding report against them, to negotiate with them to withdraw the complaint, in exchange for paying 100 dinars for each worker, but they refused his offer, because the sums owed to them are greater than that, in addition to being subjected to “inhuman” treatment, according to Salim, one of the workers who complained, but the employer did not stop threatening them by saying, “The case will remain for years and you will not take anything,” according to Salim.
“If you Leave, I shall report you”
“I have 7 children and my daughter left school because I could not send them money. I am their only source of income.” With this phrase Hassan describes the condition of his family as a result of the employer’s refusal to pay his salaries for three months since he started working on his farm in Deir Alla in 2018.
Hassan’s suffering did not stop at working without pay. The constant threat of the employer to file absconding report against him if he left his work exacerbated his tragedy. The same applies to his colleague Ayman, who insisted on demanding his wages when his mother called him from Egypt, informing him of her need for surgery, but the farm owner refused to give him any money on the pretext that he did not have the money. This prompted Ayman to request to leave towards home, or to leave work, to be surprised by the employer’s threat to him by saying, “Walk away and I shall report you missing. You will come begging.”
Hassan, Ayman and other colleagues were afraid of the employer, which made them accept the reality and live as prisoners inside the farm because the employer had withheld their passports and work permits, prevented them from leaving the farm, and forced them to work long hours without weekly or sick leaves, which prompted Hassan and Ayman to leave the farm, in order for the employer to file an absconding report against them in February 2019.
Ayman comments on the report, saying, “Why would I leave if he pays me?” Stressing that they left work because of exploitation and denying their rights despite their need for money.
What happened with Hassan and Ayman was repeated with the twenty-year-old Wissam, who left his job in a bakery in the city of Salt due to disagreements related to his wages for overtime hours and work during vacations, but the employer’s commissioner and former supervisor denies not paying Wissam dues, arguing that submitting the absconding report is in order to disclaim his responsibility, and that he had a previous intention to leave work, he only worked in the bakery for two months, he said.
The Jordanian labor law guarantees a migrant worker the right to file a complaint in the event of abuse, similar to the Jordanian worker, but many obstacles prevent this, and these may lead them to leave work without filing a complaint with the labor directorates, including those related to fear of submitting a complaint or knowing employers are well connected. Also, the different accents could play a role in this, as demonstrated by a study entitled “Access to justice for migrant and refugee workers”, issued by the Tamkeen Center in 2019.
Expatriates working in homes and the agricultural sector – in particular – face an additional challenge that is to exclude them from applying the provisions of the Labor Law, provided that the provisions to which they are subject to are to be set in a system that regulates their work contracts and matters of their employment according to an amendment issued in 2008 to Article Three of the law. The Ministry of Labor has not issued this system until today.
Although Article 29 of the Labor Law gives the right to the worker to leave work without notice in cases outlined by the law, including reducing his wages or being exposed to abuse by the employer or insulting or belittling, the security services stop the worker against whom an absconding report was registered, according to cases monitored by this report.
Absconding Report Freezes Work
A year and a half after the owner of the farm reported that Hassan and Ayman fled, during which they turned into illegal workers who did not have passports or work permits, and because of that, they were forced to work for low wages on farms in the Jordan Valley, Ayman says.
Wissam’s condition is not much different after he spent three years working and residing illegally due to report, and he has been hiding from the police, but he has been out of work for months, as the employers refuse to hire him when they know about the absconding report.
“I used to work well in large restaurants, but they knew of the report and fired me. I have been working on and off since then,” Wissam says, adding that the labor office tells him every time that he must solve his problem with his sponsor so that he can obtain a new work permit. Even leaving the country and withdrawing his dues from Social Security will remain unresolved until his problem is solved.
The absconding report freezes all procedures of the worker, and causes the termination of his permit, and in the event that the worker resorted to issuing a new work permit with another employer, the Ministry asks the worker for a clearance from the official employer, which exposes them to exploitation again, and makes them at the mercy of the employer who fell into disputes with, according to Abu Najma, stressing that absconding reports violate the judicial procedures and are against the worker, and if the employer has been subjected to loses from the worker leaving him, then the judiciary is the one who settles the matter.
Deportation Due to Reports
Fuad and his brother Alaa found work in the construction sector in Irbid after they left the farm, and a few days later, in May 2019, the police arrested them, as they were working without a work permit, so they were deported to Egypt, and their third brother, Salim, was relieved.
Lawyer Hussein Al-Omari, from the Adalah Center, explains the mechanism for dealing with a migrant worker against whom an absconding report was registered upon arrest. Police consider his residency whether it was expired or not, and often it is expired due to its connection to the work permit that ends due to the report for being absent from work, therefore, the worker is to be deported to his country, and is arrested pending the implementation of the deportation decision, which is considered the prerogative of the Ministry of Interior.
This is what the Ministry of Interior confirmed in its response to a request for information submitted by the author of the report, that the decision to deport migrant workers is not due to absconding itself, “but for violating the residency law and overstaying due to absconding, and the resulting fines.”
If his residency is valid and he also has a valid work permit, the police summon the employer, and if he expresses his unwillingness to return him to work, they are transferred to the Ministry of Labor, which in turn requests the worker to bring a new employer with the consent of the previous employer, for the permit to be renewed, and if he does not agree, a decision is issued to deport the worker.
No rules for verifying the absconding report
Abu Najma believes that the reasons that prompted workers to leave their work must be taken into consideration, and not only to prove the validity of the absconding incident, as the report may be malicious. Yet, there are no legal controls or clear instructions to deal with the matter, and it is often related to the conviction and vision of the workers who specialize in examining these reports in Labor offices, according to him.
In its response to a request for information, the Ministry of Labor says that it requires confirming the absconding report, that the work permit is valid, and there are at least two months to expire, then the employer is required to fill out the absconding report form, after which the concerned employee will confirm the absconding on the expatriate worker. According to what was mentioned in the instructions for the conditions and procedures for the employment and recruitment of non-Jordanian workers for the year 2012, which stipulate that “the employer must inform the bodies that issued work permits about the incident of the non-Jordanian worker leaving or absconding work within the validity period of the work permit in order for the necessary measures to be taken against the worker.” In the event that the employer does not submit a notification of absconding, then he will be subject to a bail that varies according to the nationality and number of the workers.
The Jordanian Labor Observatory, affiliated to the Phoenix Center for Economic Studies and Informatics, believes in a statement issued in December 2019 that the Labor Law grants broad powers to the Minister of Labor in the matter of transferring non-Jordanian workers, and that these powers “are supposed to be transferred to the judicial authority, and not by an administrative decision issued by the minister.”
Bias to the employer
The problem regarding the employee leaving work without notice must be referred to the judiciary, in order to compensate the employer for the damage, as estimated by the competent court, according to the Jordanian Labor Law.
But Abu Najma, for his part, rejects the logic of dealing with absconding reports, saying: “Is it reasonable for the employer to comfortably submit the absconding report while the worker goes to court, and it remains for years to prove that he did not escape or the motives for leaving work?”, Considering that this is a clear bias for the owner and a lack of fairness to the migrant worker, although the evidence is on the claimant, therefore, the absence of deterrent penalties for the employer in the event the report was malicious exposes the worker to more violations, especially since the Ministry acknowledges in its response that the employer does not incur any penalties if it is proven that the absconding report is malicious, bearing in mind that there is a mention in the absconding report form that the employer submits to the Labor Office, stating that if the information contained in the report is proven incorrect, the employer shall be referred to the judiciary.
Lawyer Al-Aqtash agrees with Abu Najma, pointing out that the Labor Directorate also asks the worker for a letter from the court proving that there is no labor case against him. It must also ask the employer, before submitting the absconding report, to bring a letter from the court confirming that there are no labor cases filed against him in court.
Al-Aqtash believes, through his follow-up on the cases of a number of workers against whom malicious absconding reports have been recorded, that there is a great responsibility and role that labor inspectors have, to make sure not only in the field of absconding reports, but also to research the motives behind this, but the predominant feature is the oversight weakness in Work directorates, he said.
From a legal perspective, absconding reports, according to Al-Omari, derive their legitimacy from the internal instructions of the Ministry of Labor, but they are not stipulated in the Labor Law, and the employer often uses them as a tool to pressure the worker, either to force him to waive his rights, to settle in his work, or just to exercise power, so he resorts to threatening to report.
Can the absconding report be canceled?
Last September, the Ministry of Labor announced a period to correct the conditions for expatriate workers, with the aim of legalizing and correcting the conditions of those who violated them, and determined that the cancellation of the absconding notice of the worker shall be in two cases; The first is through a reconciliation with the employer fixed on the expatriate labor system in the ministry, and the second is through bringing proof of the absence of a lawsuit filed by the employer against the worker related to his relationship with work, and based on explanations from the court, the notification is canceled by the concerned directorate.
During that period, Salim and some of his colleagues were able to bring explanations from the court proving that there was no case from the employer against them, and they submitted them to the Labor Office, and the notification against them was canceled after nine months of suffering that caused the deportation of Fuad and his brother Alaa.
Hassan is still working illegally, and he contacted his sponsor – through an intermediary – trying to cancel the absconding report, but the sponsor refused that, but rather asked Hassan to pay the amount of 550 dinars instead of the costs of his recruitment and issuance of permits, the latter already signed such bills upon working.
As for Wissam, he contacted the employer directly; suggesting that he pay a sum of money to cancel the absconding report, but the employer refused that, and asked Wissam to come to him with his passport, which scared Wissam about the employer’s intention to deport him. The employer’s commissioner says, they asked him to come to an understanding about the damage he caused, before proceeding to cancel the report against him.
Wissam remained working illegally until last June, before returning to Egypt after he submitted a request to leave Jordan through the “Hemaya” platform that the Ministry of Labor launched during the Coronavirus crisis to allow migrant workers and their families to return to their countries even if they were in violation or with expired permits.
* Pseudonyms were used for Egyptian workers at their request, in order to preserve their privacy.
** This report is supported by “Journalists for Human Rights”.
Original posted here: https://bit.ly/3hN5D0V