By Lidija Sabados
“I am not currently working because of the curfew, and I now have just a little milk for my child,” an unnamed migrant domestic worker and mother told Tamkeen, a Jordanian legal organization working on migrant rights. “I have not been able to travel, and I hope the curfew will not last long.”
In March of this year, during the initial strict lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 600 domestic workers contacted Tamkeen to report that they were unable to provide for their daily needs of food, and other basic requirements. Amongst them were more than thirty mothers who were unable to provide diapers and milk for their children.
None of these cases received media attention in Jordan, nor did media, with a few notable exceptions, cover the struggles faced by migrant workers during the lockdown and the ongoing pandemic.
Despite seeing a rise in the numbers of people asking for assistance, “there are no accurate statistics about the economic impact of the pandemic on migrants”, said Ahmad Awad, Director of the Phenix Center for Economics & Informatics Studies. “They are suffering more than Jordanians. Many of them have lost their jobs, especially those working in construction and agriculture.
Shrinking space for journalism all around
Jordan is currently under military rule after a royal decree was issued to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country. While authorities received some initial praise from citizens for moving quickly to contain the spread of the coronavirus, international human rights groups have documented that fundamental human rights such as freedom of movement and freedom of expression have been sacrificed in the process. For both Jordanians and non-Jordanians in the country, the space for rights and freedoms has been shrinking since the start of the pandemic.
As reported by Human Rights Watch, since the March 17 declaration of emergency, “Jordanian authorities have detained two prominent media executives, a foreign journalist, and a former member of parliament as well as three people for allegedly spreading ‘fake news’”. Under Defense Order No. 8, issued on April 15 under Jordan’s state of emergency, sharing news that would “cause panic” about the pandemic in the media or online can carry a penalty of up to three years in prison.
Lack of coverage of the most vulnerable
Journalists in Jordan are facing increasing pressures, including more self-censorship. When it comes to migrants and migrant workers and their experiences during COVID-19, the media in Jordan are largely silent, with a handful of exceptions. Tamkeen has produced more than 15 reports under the series titled “Under curfew”, all of which focus on monitoring violations, and the ramifications of COVID-19 on both migrant and Jordanian workers.
Sawsan Zaideh, a media researcher and trainer, says that the lack of coverage of migrants in Jordan impacts on their rights. In April this year, when Bangladeshi journalist Salim Akash was arrested, he was accused of “breaking an important law” and damaging Jordan’s image by reporting on the situation of South Asian workers in the country. No local media outlet reported on his case. In June, a family member of Akash told the Committee to Protect Journalists that a deportation order had been issued for him, but no date has been set for the deportation and he remains in prison.
Meanwhile, authorities have encouraged migrant workers to leave the country. In April, they announced an amnesty for residence and work permits which has been extended to October 30. “They are in a difficult position. The government is encouraging them to leave the country. Employers don’t allow them to leave. No one is writing about it,” said Mohammed Shamma, head of content at Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), a Canadian media development organization that works in Jordan.
“Migrants are largely viewed in a negative light in Jordan, both by individual journalists and the community at large,” said Linda Kalash, Tamkeen’s director. At best, there is a lack of interest in the media in covering their stories. At worst, there is hate speech. A relatively recent example of hateful portrayal is the cartoon published in January in Al Ghad, a privately-owned newspaper, which portrayed the Jordanian economy as the juice box, a migrant as the overweight person drinking most of the ‘juice’ and a skinny Jordanian with empty pockets.
Human rights journalism
Only a handful of journalists and media organizations focus on covering issues related to migrants and migrant workers. Since the start of the pandemic, JHR has published four stories pertaining to the rights and struggles of migrants and migrant workers in Jordan. JHR commissions human rights-based stories which are then published in various media outlets, as well as on its own site. JHR’s partners in Jordan are usually Al Ghad, and the community media site AmmanNet. Recently AmmanNet worked with JHR to produce several investigations on workers in the garment sector in Jordan as well as stories about legal challenges associated with permits for Egyptian workers.
Together with JHR, Al Ghad published a story on access to justice and closure of courts during the pandemic. Though not specifically focused on migrants, the investigation highlighted the story of Bangladeshi journalist Salim Akash who remains stuck in detention due to the closure of the courts. This closure has particularly affected migrants, many of whom are stuck in a legal limbo, some without a lawyer, waiting for the courts to reopen so their cases can be resolved.
The independent media site 7iber has also published stories about the lack of economic benefits for migrant day laborers during COVID-19 and the occupational hazards of day laborers, including migrants, during the recent heatwave in Jordan.
Other media outlets and government-owned newspapers such as Al Rai and Ad-Dustour have been silent.
“There is very little space, and no platform to reflect the plight of foreigners in Jordan,” said Shamma.
Disadvantaged from the start
“Everyone had it hard under the lockdown, but migrants had it the worst,” said Khalash. In addition to not being able to access economic benefits provided to Jordanian citizens, Tamkeen recorded an increase in the reported cases of abuse of domestic and other migrant workers, as well as withholding of food and salaries by employers, human trafficking and forced labour. Despite the fact that formal migrant workers pay into the country’s social security system, the government did not include them in the social protections programs created for COVID-19 relief. “This is outright discrimination,” said Khalash.
Despite the Minister of Labor’s announcement that employers in the private sector should provide all workers their full wages during the curfews and lockdowns that occurred in March, some employers have declined to do so. According to a Tamkeen report, the Ministry also announced that wages would be delivered through electronic wallets. However, many migrant workers do not have compatible phones or lack a connection to the Internet. “Others have difficulties using technology, while some simply do not understand the interface of the wallet, as it is only available in either Arabic or English.”
When asked about the particular challenges faced by migrant workers in Jordan, the Ministry of Labour spokesperson Mohammed Ziod said that “migrant workers in Jordan faced the same challenges that confront Jordanian workers, and among these limitations are the decrease in employment opportunities due to the suspension of work in some companies and institutions as a result of economic conditions due to the pandemic.” The Ministry of Labour has not acknowledged the unique challenges specific to migrants, and the mainstream media in Jordan, with a few notable exceptions, have been largely silent in shining a light on their stories.
Lidija Sabados is a media development consultant and researcher. She is currently the executive director of Syria Direct, an independent media organization based in Amman, Jordan. She has over ten years of experience in media development and freedom of expression, having worked for various non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental agencies. She has also worked as a writer, editor and communications consultant.