Amman, Jordan – Ghem knew if she didn’t flee the house immediately she may never have another opportunity of escape.
The 23-year old Filipino house cleaner’s “madam” had forgotten to lock the front door of the home she had been working, and not been able to leave for three years.
“I ran. I only had 50 pesos and no passport. I just ran”
Talking to Words in a Bucket from Hong Kong where she now lives, Ghem recounts her escape from working as a domestic house cleaner in Amman, Jordan, as an escape from slavery.
Her employer, who kept her locked in the house, withheld her salary and made her live in a small two metre by four “cupboard” style room, she said, “was the devil.”
There are around 50,000 legal migrant domestic workers in Jordan, and an estimated further 30,000 undocumented domestic workers according to a report by Jordanian human rights organisation Tamkeen Fields for Aid.
Many like Gwen are from the Philippines, but they also come from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Kenya, seeking jobs as housekeepers and nannies to support their families at home.
Many get a good salary, but there are increasing numbers who are not so lucky.
Domestic workers or slaves?
In a 2015 report by Tamkeen, almost 40 percent of domestic workers said their employers abused them and did not pay their salaries.
It is common practice for workers to be deprived of basic needs such as food, leisure time and the chance to even contact their families. Live-in is common, being on-call and working seven days a week.
“Many of them are also exposed to physical, verbal and sexual abuse,” the study concluded.
A 2011 Human Rights Report revealed that over half of Jordan’s domestic workers were sexually assaulted by members of the agencies that brought them to Jordan and distributed them among Jordanian houses.
The Tamkeen report found over 20 percent were sexually assaulted by their employers.
For Gwen, she said she was one of the lucky ones. A taxi driver picked her up as she ran wildly along a road outside the house she had worked in for years but had never stepped foot on.
The driver took her to the Philippine embassy where she stayed at their shelter for abused migrants and was then supported to leave the country.
Many, however, who are undocumented and facilitated to come to Jordan via agencies and do not have correct visas in the country, are all but prisoners when their employees take their passport.
“Who can we go to for help?” said Charita, an undocumented worker who was among one of the thousands of workers who responded to a recent Facebook post that called for better treatment of domestic workers in Jordan. “We will go to jail if we try to get help.”
Migrants in Jordan who flee abusive employers risk being imprisoned as illegal workers if they fail to find shelter with their embassies.
Fifteen years imprisoned
Tears are pouring down Vanessa’s face when Words in a Bucket finds her at the airport in Amman.
The 43-year old Bangladeshi domestic worker is frantic, desperately calling for help from attendees at a ticket counter. She must go home she says. It has been 15 years. She has no passport, nor money. Like Gwen, she says she finally escaped.
“What can we do?” Fadi, an airport attendee says. “Her story is terrible but we can only send her to the authorities.”
While Jordan is the only Arab country to include domestic workers under its labor laws and since 2008 introduced regulation on the rights and duties of domestic workers, employers and recruitment agencies, Human Rights Watch say the situation on the ground is akin to those in less-regulated countries.
“Jordan’s laws and regulations are only part of the problem. While Jordanian officials now have the tools to prevent and respond to abuses, they have lacked sufficient political will and coordination to use them,” the report said.
Under Jordanian law migrant domestic workers should be deported not imprisoned for violating labour or residency regulations, Linda al-Kalash, the Director of Tamkeen, told The Guardian.
Kalash said some domestic workers jailed for not paying visa overstay fines end up in detention for years.
According to Tamkeen research, of the 281 migrant worker detainees they interviewed, 55 percent were held from three weeks to four months, 18 per cent for five to 11 months, and 5 per cent from one to two years.
What is Jordan doing about this?
Jordanian authorities have said they are committed to ending trafficking and protecting victims.
Jordan passed a counter-trafficking law in 2009 and has two shelters for victims of human trafficking run by the Jordanian Women’s Union and the government.
“We put victims in shelter, not prison. We’re committed to stopping trafficking and to protecting these workers as guests,” Basel al-Tarawneh, the government coordinator on human rights told The Guardian.
For Waseem, a 39-year old Jordanian business executive, the treatment of domestic workers in his country has a lot to do with mentality. In Arabic, the domestic worker is a “shagaleh – “servant.”
“It’s a mentality that some have, she works for me and I am paying her so I must extract the maximum I can get,” Waseem tells Words in a Bucket.
With a strong cultural view of shame being connected to working as a cleaner, and the migrant domestic workers coming relatively cheap, most middle-class and upper-class households in Jordan have a live-in cleaner.
“Two to four thousand dinars (USD2800-5600) to get them first time depending on the nationality and then 160-350 dinar (USD$225-$490) a month,” Waseem says. A portion of this goes to the ‘recruitment agency’ and covering travel costs
“We’ve all seen the rooms they live in when we look for accommodation,” says Nino a humanitarian expat worker. “It’s like a cupboard – and all the houses in Abdoun have them.” Abdoun is considered a wealthy neighbourhood in Amman.
Gwen said she has many friends working in Jordan who have had good experiences with their “madams,” and have families in the Philippines reliant on the money they send home each month.
“They are given food, somewhere to sleep and given a day off.” Gwen says there are many kind people in Jordan, but like many, she questions why treatment of domestic workers must come down to personality.
*Names changed to protect identity