Karim Jaafar/AFP

When work doesn't pay

Analysis: Migrant workers who try to obey laws can find themselves in trouble — with little recourse

Hamdino Najdi migrated to Jordan from Egypt with high hopes of earning a decent living to support his family. Instead, he ended up spending 13 months in a Jordanian detention facility. Najdi had been working in a restaurant in Amman when he had a dispute with his employer, who canceled his work permit in retribution.

Najdi was subsequently arrested by Ministry of Labor inspectors because his work papers were no longer valid. Although in principle Jordanian employers are responsible for ensuring that valid work permits are issued for anyone they employ, like many migrants, Najdi paid the price and was left to languish for more than a year in detention awaiting deportation. He was released only after going on a hunger strike.

Last month, Najdi won a groundbreaking legal case against the Jordanian state for unlawful detention. In the first judicial ruling of its kind in the kingdom, Amman Magistrate Court Judge Haifa Kayyali described Najdi's treatment by government authorities as “cruel and inhuman” and ordered payment of 2,000 JDs ($2,856) in compensation, thus setting an important legal precedent for Jordan and the region as a whole.

Najdi’s suffering is not unique, but few migrants are successful in fighting against exploitative working conditions in their host country.

Across Asia and the Middle East, millions of migrant workers are employed on guest worker programs in which they are sponsored by a specific employer to work on a short-term contract. Thousands are held in administrative detention each year when employers fail to obtain or renew their work permits.

Given that their work visas are tied to their employers, many cannot leave a bad job for a better one and are reluctant to complain about abuse — not least because it could result in detention and jeopardize their right to stay in the country.

Trapped in a bad situation

Legal victories like Najdi’s are few and far between. Migrants filing court cases need to stay in the country for what are often lengthy legal proceedings.

Because their employers are unlikely to agree to transfer their sponsorship to a new employer, they can’t seek new employment or otherwise earn a living and are starved out of the legal process.

This makes accessing legal remedies almost impossible.

Even guest workers who have valid permits routinely face exploitation at the hands of recruiters and employers. Migrants from Asian and African countries who are desperate for jobs in the Middle East typically pay up to $3,000 in fees to recruitment agencies only to find themselves doing different work for less pay than they were promised at home.

Many report nonpayment of wages, excessive working hours without overtime pay, and unsafe working conditions. Some are deceived about the terms and nature of the work they will do abroad.

Others make conscious, if reluctant, choices to take up arduous, low-status jobs abroad because they have few other ways of earning a decent living at home. 

Plight of domestic workers

Those employed in domestic work are among those most susceptible to abuse. Despite some progress in the last decade, most domestic workers continue to be excluded from basic labor protections many other workers take for granted, such as limits on working hours and minimum wage coverage. For a report published by the Open Society Foundations earlier this year, a team of researchers and I interviewed more than 500 migrant domestic workers in Jordan and Lebanon.

More than half did not have a valid employment contract for the work they were performing. Many reported being confined to the homes in which they work, facing restrictions on phone use and socializing with other migrants. While some of the workers we spoke with described positive relationships with employers who paid their wages on time, other stories of women being locked up in their employers’ homes, made to work from dawn until late at night and cheated out of their wages were all too common.

These problems are not particular to the Middle East.

Debt, fraud and coercion are endemic to guest worker programs in almost every region. For example, the United States recruits between 700,000 and 900,000 guest workers every year through various temporary visa programs. A report by the advocacy group Global Workers Justice Alliance describes these programs as inherently disempowering for migrants. For nearly every visa category reviewed, exploitation of foreign workers was documented. Illegal deductions and wage theft were extremely common and often went unchallenged, and occupational health and safety violations were frequent.

A Guatemalan official quoted in the report said, "an overarching aspect of the guest-worker experience is living with fear."

By tying migrants’ legal status to a specific employer, guest worker programs force migrants to accept whatever wages and terms of work are offered. Knowing that speaking out could result in being put on the next flight home, many workers are silent about abuse and remain trapped in bad jobs.

This can serve to drive down wages and lowers standards for all workers. Managing migration in ways that are fair and humane is challenging — but it is not impossible. At a minimum, more attention needs to be paid to the consequences migration policies have for migrants themselves.  

This is the third of a four-part series by journalists and researchers looking at the human story behind migration. The pieces were brought together by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, a global program focusing livelihoods and service delivery in conflict-affected situations.

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