Domestic Workers: Souls Suspended From Windows

صورة تعبيرية لعائشة، عاملة بنغالية مقيمة في الأردن. تصوير عز الدين الناطور.

Domestic Workers: Souls Suspended From Windows

July 27, 2016

By Ezzeldeen Al-Natour

Translated from Arabic by Michelle Balon  

Bengali domestic worker Aisha’s journey in Jordan proved short. Merely a week after arriving in Amman last March, she found herself hospitalized with multiple fractures throughout her body – the result of falling from a second story window. Her employer had forced her to install a curtain on one of the house’s windows and, according to Aisha, failed to help her immediately after assuming that she had died.

Aisha’s on-the-job fall speaks to the recently repeated occurrence of domestic workers falling from windows in Jordan, the reasons of which are often unclear.  

Since her injury, Aisha has been suffering from a poor psychological state and residing in a shelter run by the Women’s Union. Having since left the hospital, she is continuing her treatment and anxiously awaits the moment she can return home. After life gave her a second chance, she no longer wishes to spend it in Jordan. “If I could go back in time, I never would’ve believed anyone or come to Jordan. All I want now is to return to my country and my family,” says Aisha, who we communicated with through a professional translator due to her limited Arabic.  

“I started working as soon as I got to the mama’s [the employer’s] house. On day one and for the next five days, I woke up at six in the morning and worked until two in the morning. The mama was high-strung, and though I could barely communicate with her, I tried to understand her as much as possible. This continued until the day of the accident,” says Aisha. “She asked me to clean and install a curtain in a window that lacked a window guard, so I took the cleaning supplies and got to work on her second-story house. After being reprimanded, one of the mama’s daughters came over to me while I was working and started giving me orders. Out of nowhere, she pushed me and I fell to the ground,” she says.  

After falling to the ground, Aisha did not receive immediate assistance. “The mama dragged me over to the garage and, thinking I was dead, didn’t help me. When I woke up, she called her sister, who took me to the hospital. When we got there, the mama threateningly shook her finger at me and repeated: ‘No police no police.’ When I got back to the house after my treatment, the mama’s son stormed into my bedroom under the staircase, searching through my bags for my passport, but I had already hid it. The next day, I stood on the window and yelled in English: ‘Help me!’ Someone noticed and called the police, who then came and took me to the police station,” she explains.

After security services opened an investigation into Aisha’s case, the prosecutor charged her employer with inflicting damage, compulsory labor under threat, and failure to provide health care. Aisha was moved to a shelter through the NGO Tamkeen Fields for Aid, to which she arrived with fractures throughout her entire body, the most obvious and dangerous ones on her pelvis and legs, confirmed Makram Odeh, shelter manager. She was unable to walk, suffered from a poor psychological state, and wanted solely to return to her country.

Civil society organizations lack official or reliable statistics on the number of domestic workers in Jordan that have recently suffered on-the-job falls from windows. According to Brigadier General Farid al-Shar’a, Manager of Media and Preventative Education at the Civil Defense Directorate, the vagueness of these cases makes them difficult to document.  

Domestic Workers
Nevertheless, on-the-job cases of domestic workers falling from windows have recently increased, confirmed Khaled Husseinat, head of the Owners of Recruitment Offices Trade Union. He estimates two cases in Amman aside from Aisha’s, as well as another two in the Northern Jordanian governorate of Irbid.

“Unfortunately, such cases exist because some employers – though fully aware that the potentially life-threatening task of standing on windows is not a part of the domestic worker’s job – neglect their safety and wellbeing,” says Husseinat. “If the employer wants the worker to clean the windows, then he must provide iron window guards to ensure her safety,” he adds.  

Husseinat confirmed that neither in their home countries nor in Jordan do domestic workers receive sufficient training on general safety procedures or on the mechanism of dealing with potentially life-threatening domestic tasks, which leads them to accept such tasks without question.

This type of news doesn’t receive enough coverage to be documented because it fails to live up to the media’s standards of provocation, with focus usually limited to successful suicide attempts.

“Cases concerning domestic workers and migrant labor are not a media priority in Jordan, and the fact that domestic workers don’t speak Arabic has left them unable to communicate with the media,” says Mohammed Shamma, a journalist specializing in human rights. Generally speaking, this has made documenting their stories and the abuses they face – including on-the-job falls from windows – a difficult task.”

According to Rashid Dakah, the Ministry of Justice’s official Bengali translator, who often deals with domestic worker cases, the offices that send domestic workers from Bangladesh to Jordan convince these workers that they must implement any command given by the employer, and that they are obliged to obey the employer regardless of his actions.

Ahmed Awad, head of Jordanian Labor Watch, believes that the individual worker sector, which includes domestic workers, operates in an environment that is more prone to violations and transgressions of labor law and general safety conditions than other environments. Not only is it far from Ministry of Labor inspection, but many employers of domestic workers are ignorant of the law.

As per Article 11 of the 2009 domestic worker regulation, the Ministry of Labor does not have the right to inspect a house without first receiving a complaint and obtaining the homeowner’s permission.

The Ministry of Labor thus focuses its efforts on inspecting domestic worker recruitment offices. Last year, inspection teams from the Ministry’s Department of Domestic Workers performed 19 inspection visits and 24 permit renewal visits, closing 23 offices and warning 25. They recommended closing five offices and cancelling the permits of 19 others. Meanwhile, the Ministry’s domestic worker complaint-solving committee solved 477 of the 485 complaints it received.

“Unfortunately, we in Jordan deal with domestic workers with the rationale of slavery. The laws and legislation have yet to protect this constituency, and the fact that domestic workers are unaware of their rights has made it easier for their employers to exploit them,” says Awad.

“In accordance with labor law and the domestic worker regulation, the employer in the house is obliged to secure general safety standards for his workers,” he says.  

“Jordanian Labor Law
Chapter Nine: Safety and Occupational Health
a) The Employer must:
Provide the necessary precautions and measures to protect the Employees from the hazards and diseases that may result from the work as well as from machines used therein.
Provide Employees with personal protection and prevention means from the hazards of work and occupational diseases such as clothes, eye glasses, gloves, shoes and the likes as well as instructing them on the method of its use, maintenance and cleaning.
Inform the Employee prior to engagement of the risks of his occupation and methods of methods of protection to be taken by him. Instructions and directives showing the occupational risks and methods of protection therefrom according to the regulations and decisions issued in this respect should be placed in a conspicuous place.”

Awad has called for strengthening the home inspections process in Jordan as a way to detect violations and ensure that homeowners feel that they are subject to provisions of the law. He also finds it necessary to teach domestic workers their fundamental rights and provide them with training on how to perform their required tasks.   

“We must not reduce the afflictions domestic workers are exposed to in the house to falling from windows,” says Linda Kalash, director of Tamkeen. “They are exposed to a variety of injuries, particularly when dealing with cleaning chemicals. We have seen significant cases of allergic reactions and skin diseases resulting from these chemicals.”

Yet in certain cases it is the worker’s negligence – not that of the employer or the recruitment agency – that causes a domestic worker’s fall.  

In 2012, thirty-year-old Sireen* recruited an Ethiopian domestic worker who she instructed from day one to make sure the shutters were closed before cleaning the windows. To teach her how, she cleaned a window in front of her, but it is clear that her instructions had fallen on deaf ears.

“I was always worried about the window cleaning, so I stressed to ‘Bilutu’ repeatedly not to clean them without closing the shutters. Unfortunately, one day she did just that. Bilutu ended up falling from the fourth floor window, but by the grace of God landed on a couch on the balcony of our downstairs neighbors,” Sireen explained to 7iber.

After sustaining numerous injuries and bruises, Bilutu was taken to the hospital where she was treated at Sireen’s expense.

Earlier this April, domestic workers received health insurance coverage through a yearly payment made by the employer, says Husseinat. However, the fact that they are still not covered by social security means that if an injury were to occur, they could be stripped of their rights.

“From the very beginning, dealing with Bilutu wasn’t easy. Her personality was difficult despite the fact that I respected all of her rights. She received her vacation and I adhered to her work hours, but she failed to follow my instructions to ensure her own safety. She worried me so much that I absolutely refused to leave my daughter with her,” Sireen pointed out.  

It eventually became apparent that the difficult behavior Sireen described may have been a natural result of Bilutu’s experience, for it was later revealed that she had been a victim of human trafficking. A Sudanese man – who the Jordanian judiciary has since sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison – had brought her to Sudan and then Jordan through an Ethiopian laborer network.

“It appears that Bilutu’s difficult experience left her with a careless and challenging character, but I think it’s up to those who bring the workers into our homes to make sure they are able to perform their duties well, without exposing themselves or those they work for to danger,” says Sireen.  

In its 2014 report, the National Center for Human Rights warned that the actions taken by the government as part of its national strategy to ban human trafficking were not enough to reduce violations against domestic workers. “Ministry of Labor actions concerning migrant labor and domestic workers fail to address employer rights,” states the report.

Aisha’s incident is proof that not all cases of domestic workers falling while cleaning windows are accidents; thus, it is crucial to document these instances, as well as those of domestic workers fleeing the houses they work in. With 3,000 cases of fleeing already documented, rarely are the reasons behind the domestic worker’s decision investigated.  

The story of the three domestic workers who fled from a recruitment center in Amman last April by jumping from the third floor window succeeded in bringing to the table the work environment conditions that push domestic workers to flee.

“I came to Jordan this March and the office owner handed me over to the employer. Shortly after, the employer’s son began harassing me – leading me to flee to the police. The police returned me to the employer and the employer returned me to the office where I was savagely beaten before being returned once again to the employer,” says Karima, one of the three domestic workers that fled and suffered from fractures in her legs and pelvis.

“When I returned, the employer’s wife also started beating me. They then returned me to the office, where I was imprisoned in a health facility and starved, only drinking from the available water. Every day, the office head would come and beat me with his hands and feet,” Karima continues, in accordance with her documented testimony at the Tamkeen Center.

About a week later and after Karima’s employer threatened to “kill them and hide their bodies,”  she and her friends jumped for their lives. In one of the few stories that have reached the media, the employer is now facing accusations of human trafficking.  

*Name was changed at the person’s request.

**The photograph above is of Aisha, the Bengali domestic worker.

***This report was done with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR).