When Meilani Yuswandari, an Indonesian from Jakarta, completed her higher secondary education, she began looking for work abroad. During her search, Yuswandari met a recruiting agent who assured her of an office job in Jordan. But when she reached the country in 2011, she realised that the office job she was promised did not exist. Instead, her agent had found her a job as the domestic help of a large family, and she was forced into work she had not agreed to. Yuswandari had to cook, clean and manage all household chores, and was not allowed to leave the house under any circumstances. “The agent took away my passport and passed it on to my employer,” Yuswandari told me when I spoke to her last month. “When I asked for it, she”—her employer—“said she was keeping it safely for me. But eventually, she claimed to have lost it.”
Unable to understand Arabic, Yuswandari often made mistakes. Her employers would beat her up each time she erred. A year ago, they accused her of stealing a gold chain belonging to their daughter. With no witnesses to vouch for her and worried that she would be handed over to the police, Yuswandari fled the house. She had a photocopy of her passport, and approached the Indonesian embassy to try and get her documents renewed so she could return home. But the embassy refused to help her. Yuswandari is still in Jordan, and remains undocumented. When I spoke to her, she was working part-time for a different employer, and was under the constant threat of being picked up and detained by the police.
Yuswandari’s case is not an aberration. The exploitation that she was subjected to is symptomatic of a larger predicament plaguing migrant workers in Jordan. In 2015, two domestic workers from Indonesia were executed in Saudi Arabia. Soon after, the Indonesian government took cognisance of the state of affairs, and banned its citizens from migrating to 21 countries, including Jordan.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO)—an agency under the United Nations—there are over 53 million migrant workers worldwide. Of these, 83 percent of are women, and a majority of them are employed in the Middle East. These women occupy a grey world in which their legal status as workers is unacknowledged and wholly dependent on their employers. Their reliance on their employers makes these women vulnerable to various forms of abuse and exploitation.
Sara Khatib, a program officer at the Solidarity Center—an institute that has been trying to organise domestic workers in Jordan since 2014—explained that there are nearly 80,000 domestic workers in Jordan, of whom 30,000 are undocumented. However, by most accounts, Jordan is reputed for its ostensible commitment to the labour rights of migrant domestic workers, particularly when compared to other nations in the region. For instance, it is the only Arab state and one of nine nations worldwide to have signed the Global Jobs Pact, which was adopted by the ILO in 2009 to ensure the fair treatment of workers everywhere. Yet, within Jordan, inequity and exploitation remain a chronic reality for many workers, particularly those coming from outside.