Labour rights are human rights for all workers

After the recent tragic death in Jordan of nine agricultural workers, most of whom were refugees, the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Shaza Al Jondi and Meredith Byrne* reflect on the vital need to safeguard the right of vulnerable workers to a safe and healthy working environment.

After the recent tragic death in Jordan of nine agricultural workers, most of whom were refugees, the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Shaza Al Jondi and Meredith Byrne* reflect on the vital need to safeguard the right of vulnerable workers to a safe and healthy working environment.

Photo credit: Workers at tomato farms, Mafraq. ILO/Nadia Bseiso
Photo credit: Workers at tomato farms, Mafraq, Jordan. ILO/Nadia Bseiso

Labour rights are human rights. They protect against unjust and hazardous conditions of work that harm not only the workers, but their families, employers and members of local communities.

Last month, nine Syrian and Jordanian agriculture workers were killed and 21 others were injured when the pick-up truck they were riding on, provided by the farmer who employed them, was involved in a fatal accident.

The workers who died included five Syrian women and three Syrian men, all of whom were residents of the Za’atari refugee camp working outside the camp to support their daily needs.

The tragedy illustrates the devastating consequences of hazardous working conditions. It calls for a reflection on the terms and conditions of work in the agriculture sector and those applied to groups of vulnerable workers.

Jordan has been providing a public good for over a decade as a main host country for an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees, and has taken strides in addressing gaps in labour protection. The 2021 adoption of Regulation No 19 to the Labour Law, referred to as the agriculture workers bylaw, brings agriculture workers under the protection of the Labour Law articles. This is a sector that relies heavily on non-national workers, including Syrian refugees, as daily and seasonal workers. Importantly, Article 11 mandates employers to abide by occupational safety and health conditions in accordance with instructions issued by the Ministry of Labour.

However, instructions are still not well implemented, ultimately undermining the realization of decent working conditions.

With the introduction of different work permit modalities in recent years, Jordan has also facilitated the entry of a large number of Syrian refugees to the formal labour market since the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011. Syrian refugees have been granted access to the labour market with more relaxed conditions than those granted to other groups of non-national workers. Numerous policies wave or relax procedures for Syrian refugees to obtain work permits, including the payment of fees. They can also receive permits that allow them to move between employers on a seasonal or daily basis with relative ease.

Flexibility at the Cost of Adequate Protections?

While flexible permits offer some form of formality to the work in sectors where seasonality and short-term employment is common, this flexibility fails to provide full protection for workers and undermines employer responsibility. The absence of instructions and adequate monitoring and enforcement mechanisms undermine the application of the Bylaw. The result is an ambiguous employment situation for vulnerable workers in the agriculture sector governed by vague articles.

The fact that the workers who lost their lives were travelling in the back of a pick-up truck provided by a farmer they were working for brings to the fore the question of employer responsibility. According to Article 2 of the Jordanian Labour Law, any accident that occurs to the employee while on his/her way to, or return from, work is considered as a work-related injury; hence there is liability on the employer even if there was only a verbal contract.

Those working as daily wage workers on flexible permits are in a subordinate relationship to those paying their wages. Imagine a scenario where the workers had a clearly defined employment relationship with the farmer who was responsible for provisions in the Labour Law. The farmer would be accountable for the state of transport provided for his or her workers. Compliance with the labour law and work-place protections would be enforceable, for instance regarding registration of workers in social security, a form of protection against such contingencies as employment-related death and injury. The surviving family members of these workers are entitled to receive financial compensation when such contingencies arise.

Photo credit: Farmers harvest crops from a field, ILO/Apex Image
Photo credit: Farmers harvest crops from a field, ILO/Apex Image

While there is merit in easing Syrian refugee and migrant workers’ access to formal labour markets to encourage self-reliance and full contribution to economic growth in countries of origin and destination, there is a balance that must be struck in the provision of decent work.

Ease of labour market access should not come at the expense of adequate work-place protections, including social protections.

The conditions that are provided to workers in Jordan, including Jordanian and Syrian agriculture workers should be in line with the international human rights instruments that Jordan is bound by, including ILO instruments such as the Equal Remuneration Convention No. 100, the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention No 111, the Labour Inspection Convention No 81, the Employment Policy Convention No 122, the Equality of Treatment (Social Security) No 118, and the Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention No 102. The ILO in Jordan supports the Government and its social partners to draft and adopt regulations that increase worker protection, in alignment with these international labour standards. It supports the development of mechanisms to monitor and enforce such regulations once brought into effect. This was evident in drafting Regulation No 19 (the agriculture workers bylaw) and follow-up support for labour inspection, Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) guide in the agriculture sector and agriculture workers’ representation in national trade unions. The ILO stands ready to continue its support for the application of the bylaw.

A Way Forward for Social Justice

Shortly following World Refugee Day, the Seventh Brussels Conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” and the 111th International Labour Conference, it is worth taking a moment to pause and reflect on the successes Jordan has achieved in accommodating such large numbers of displaced persons within its labour market, while also pushing ahead with efforts to provide all workers with a safe and healthy working environment. Safeguarding and building on these achievements requires the commitment of the Government, workers, employers and members of the international community.

A few steps can be considered to reinforce existing efforts and address remaining gaps:

  • Work towards ratifying additional ILO Conventions would signal Jordan’s commitment and increase accountability to its workers and employers. These include the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No.155) and the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 2006 (No. 187), which were designated in 2022 as fundamental Conventions of the ILO.
  • Review gaps in implementation of the Agriculture Bylaw to identify where revisions or further instructions are needed.
  • Support legislative reforms and enhance administrative systems to allow the inclusion of all workers in social security, including casual and seasonal workers, regardless of sector, gender or nationality.
  • Support the joint work with the ILO to finalize a draft Occupational Safety and Health guide in the agriculture sector, and engage with social partners and sector leads to ensure its timely and effective dissemination.
  • Continue working on strengthening labour inspectorate functions and expanding its outreach and building capacities of labour inspectors, particularly in the agriculture sector.
  • Support the role of the Ministry of Agriculture and related national entities such as the Social Security Corporation, to reinforce the application of labour rights in the agriculture sector, and provide targeted guidance to help employers improve compliance.
  • Encourage inter-ministerial and cross sector dialogue to address gaps in labour market protections, including social protection, both de jure and de facto.
  • Meaningfully engage with the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions and the assigned sub union, the General Union for Water, Agriculture and Food Industry, to reconsider the right of agriculture workers to have a dedicated trade union, which can play an important role in promoting occupational safety and health, implementing protection measures for workers in the sector, monitoring the compliance of employers, and negotiating collective bargaining agreements (CBAs).
  • Bolster engagement with local cooperatives, CSOs and NGOs to increase awareness among workers and their employers on labour rights, social security entitlements and their responsibilities.
  • The death of the nine workers was preventable. The labour law contains articles that protect against such incidents. The fact that there was no compliance serves as a call to action to strengthen the application of international standards. Decent work means that refugees and host community members alike live their lives with dignity and strengthen their resilience and self-reliance, regardless of sector of work or employment relationship. This should be a prospect accessible to all workers in Jordan.

*Shaza Al Jondi is the ILO Chief Technical Adviser for PROSPECTS in the Regional Office for Arab States, and Meredith Byrne is ILO Technical Officer for PROSPECTS in the Regional Office for Arab States. The Article benefitted from valuable inputs of the following ILO colleagues: Samer Al Rawashdeh, Amin Al Wreidat, Reem Aslan, Amaal Bani Awaad, Maha Kattaa, Jullnar Kurdi, Luca Pellerano, Mustapha Said, and Lejo Sibbel.

Republished with permission from the International Labour Organization.
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