Amman/Cairo – Egyptian worker Abu Muhammad Mustafa, 41, admits that he obtained his “agricultural labor permit” after paying JD300 ($430) to a Jordanian intermediary so he can work on a daily basis. He also paid a similar amount to an Egyptian intermediary on the other side of this prohibited trade.
Abu Muhammad, evidently stressed out, says: “I am a simple man. After the chaos that followed the January 25 revolution, I came to Jordan without a visa.” He only agreed to talk to this reporter after several attempts to gain his confidence and assure him that he will not end up deported or loose his income.
The difference in the exchange rate between the Jordan Dinar and the Egyptian pound and a guaranteed opportunity for a relatively higher level of income than in Egypt, pushed him into selling his wife’s jewelry to leave for Jordan and buy a work permit.
At a construction site in the city of Madaba (30 kilometers south of Amman), he explained the mechanism for buying the illegal labor permit: “Cousins of mine who had worked here before told me that there are some good men in Jordan who can secure an agriculture work permit so I can work, but I will have to pay money.”
He continues: “I called a courageous Egyptian, may God repay him well, and he helped me after taking some money.” He connected him with the Jordanian intermediary to obtain an agricultural work permit, only on paper, before I could take up a job in the booming construction sector on a daily basis.”
Abu Muhammad is in debt for a whole year, since his wife’s jewelry, “which brought very little” went to Jordanian and Egyptian intermediaries. He has to pay 20% of his JD 120 a month to repay the debt.
The same happened with Abdul Rahman, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. He came to Jordan after he sold his wife’s jewelry, and mortgaged his mother’s “burial land”. Abdul Rahman says: “I want to stay near my mother and my wife, but the situation is very difficult in Egypt.” (Annex).
“Working in Jordan in any profession requires a great deal of contacts (Wasta). This is why I gave some money to some good people, Jordanians and Egyptians to provide me with work. Thank God, everything is very well.” says Abdul Rahman, who works at a café in Amman.
The stories of these men shows how a new trade, called “The Labor Permits Trade” came into existence since Jordan decided to impose strict policies on foreign laborers to ease local unemployment. Expanding this trade are easy immigration policies as Egyptians can enter Jordan without a visa but need to obtain a labor permit to be able to work.
The Ministry of Labor has not denied the existence of this trade, but it has expressed reservations over the size of the problem and defended strict immigration controls.
This investigation, which was carried out over six months, including one visit to Cairo and spending says in the Jordanian cities of Irbid, Amman, Madaba, and Karak. It has documented the desperate situation of Egyptian laborers, the “greed” of intermediaries, and loopholes in the joint labor agreement as well as regulations for labor work permits.
Foreign laborers can only work on farms, and in agricultural projects. Other sectors are partially or fully closed in the face of foreign workers. Hence, around 100,000 foreign workers from Egypt mainly end up working in construction in violation of the labor permits designated for farms, estimated at 300,000 permits a year, according to the Ministry of Labor.
One intermediary, Abu Mustafa (not his real name), wrapped his face with a Kafiah to conceal his features, and covered his eyes with sun glasses before agreeing to talk to this reporter in Madaba. He insisted on keeping the cell phone until the interview ended. And he asked to search the handbag, looking for a hidden camera or tape recorder.
“I am simply an intermediary whose intention is to do good for a well-off employer and a poor Egyptian who wants to work. Each laborer ends up paying between JD 300 to 500 ($450 – 700), to can obtain an agriculture work permit and then move on to other professions.
Abu Mustafa refuses to elaborate on the “permit trade” mechanism, saying that what this is part of “favors”, or a special service that he will never reveal to anyone. He also refuses to talk about his partners in Egypt and the amounts of money he splits with farm owners who inflate the number of workers they need. The extra workers end up moving to other sectors.
Mohammad Attiyeh, owner of a farm in South Shounah, shares his experience as a witness to cases of “manipulation and trickery regarding the sale of permits.”
Attiyeh says that “farmers fall into two categories. There are farming families, whereby the farmer, his wife and children work in farming. There are also farm owners who know nothing about their farms. This is where the law is abused and permits are sold.” Although “the law is clear, there are abuses at the hands of farm owners with the cooperation of some employees, which leads to obtaining some additional permits that are sold according to the season and to supply and demand.”
The “confessions” of Abu Mustafa and the explanation of Attiyeh show there are over 20 “intermediaries” in various cities.
In Egypt, Muhammad Ali, 28, talks about the same stories recalled by his counter parts in Jordan. He says that a large number of Egyptian youth aspire to go to Jordan because the revolution did not fulfill their aspirations”. Hence, they end up buying these work permits.
The Ministry of Labor does not deny “some misuse of the work permits”, but emphasizes that there is a mechanism to catch violators by its 120 inspectors. In some cases, inspectors recommend the deportation of illegal workers, according to Ibrahim Al-Saoudi, Director of Legal Affairs, International Cooperation and Information at the Ministry. And the sponsor ends up with a JD500 ($700) per violation. (Annex).
This reported conducted a survey of 100 employers, which showed the most common labor permit violations and the parties behind them. Only 80 of them responded. Sixty per cent of them said they offered incentives such as “bribes” and gifts, or put pressure on officials to facilitate the process of obtaining labor permits. Their responses were restricted to two from seven questions included in the survey. (Annex)
They said they paid “bribes” of between JD100 to 500, to facilitate the procedures of bringing in an expatriate worker (Annex). Yet all officials denied in a parallel survey that they received any sort of bribe or succumbed to pressure. 70% of those surveyed accused work owners of committing violations to obtain permits for their workers, but refused to specify these violations. (Annex).
Ahmad, Awad, Director of Al-Finiq Center for Economic Studies argues that “the government does not know the real number of foreign workers, or in which professions they work, because of the increasing work-permit trade, and the emergence of suspicions of corruption related to the procedures used to regulate the work of guest laborers, especially Egyptians.
Awad estimates the number of workers who hold permits, and who violate work regulations at about 600,000 workers. Adding their family members, the number could jump to about one million, or one guest worker for every seven Jordanians. Awad quotes a study by the Labor Observatory carried out in 2010, which revealed the presence of a trade in permits, especially between Jordan and Egypt.
“We have information from different sources showing that influential people in the Jordanian government, businessmen and land owners are given permits to bring in Egyptian laborers for working in the agricultural sector.”
The Central Bank of Jordan estimates the transfers of expatriate laborers in 2010 at JD351.3 million ($495.3 million). Egyptian Embassy Consul Wa’el Al-Najareb estimates the figure at $540 million, for Egyptians working in the Kingdom. Both the Jordanian Ministry of Labor and the Egyptian Embassy said that measures were taken to form joint committees for solving the problem of “trade in permits” in Jordan’s labor market.
Work Permits Trade
A study carried out by the Jordanian Labor Observatory in December 2010 entitled “Male and Female Workers in Agriculture: The Absence of Basic Rights and Semi Human Trafficking” indicates that farm owners sell work permits to expatriate labor” against financial amounts ranging from JD500 and 1000 per permit.”
Salah Atyan, Director of the Labor Representation Office at the Egyptian Embassy refuses to relate the “agricultural work permits trade to organized gangs”. Instead, he blames this on the “openness of the Jordanian labor market, and that the disparity in fees for work permits paid by workers in agriculture.
Ibrahim Al-Saoudi, Director of Legal Affairs at the Ministry of Labor emphasizes that measures were taken to impose stringent penalties on violators and to activate joint labor cooperation agreements. He points out that “a hot line at the Ministry of Labor receives complaints regardless of nationality.”
The Say of the Law
“The Jordanian Labor Law is clear and rigorous regarding the process of obtaining permits”, according to attorney Sakhr Al-Khasawneh, who specializes in labor cases. He points out that the law “regulates the work of expatriate labor”. There are more openings in the agriculture sector due to shortage of Jordanians willing to work on farms. Only one third Jordanians work in the agricultural sector, which provides at least 150,000 jobs. The farming sector contributes to 3.7% of the Gross Domestic Product, according to the estimates of the Department of Statistics.
Article 2 of the Labor Law stipulates that: “A non-Jordanian worker must obtain a work permit before arriving in Jordan.”
Replacing Expatriate Labor with Jordanian Labor
The government declared a national strategy for employment last March, to be implemented over ten years in three stages. The strategy seeks to replace expatriate labor with Jordanian labor.
The Labor Ministry has concluded a number of agreements with representatives of various sectors in the country to identify the number of Jordanian laborers needed in these sectors, in preparation for replacing expatriate labor.”
Atyan, the Egyptian embassy official, emphasizes that new agreements will soon be signed “to reduce the flow of any violating labor, and to regulate existing labor in order to protect the rights of both parties.”
Despite these promises, the trade in foreign labor permits is likely to go on if no real measures are taken to stem it.
This report was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and under the supervision of Saad Hattar.