Jordan Shows Israel Who's the (Better) Boss

Israelis like to think of themselves as benevolent employers, at least by regional standards, but they could learn something from the Jordanians.

One effect of the myth of Israel as a "village in the jungle" of the Middle East, which took hold following the country's founding, has been to belittle the treatment of workers, especially migrants workers, in neighboring countries. The assumption is that workers' conditions are paradisiacal in Israel when compared to those in the Arab world. If there is exploitation here, there is slavery there. If basic rights are occasionally trampled on here, they are routinely and grotesquely violated there. And when concerns are raised about the exploitation of Palestinian workers in Israel, those who complain are respectfully invited to compare the status of these workers to that of their relatives working in Arab countries and to thank Israeli employers for their generosity.

Those inclined to make such comparisons should take a look at what is happening on the other side of the Jordan River. The Hashemite Kingdom's Labor Ministry recently announced new regulations to protect the rights of "guest workers" (the preferred term in Jordan for what Israelis usually call "foreign workers") in the country. The new regulations require guest workers to provide authorities with reports signed by their employers that detail their terms of employment, including their exact work hours, salary, employment conditions and the like when they decide to leave Jordan. The documents are filed with the Labor Ministry, which verifies that what is written in the reports reflects workers' actual treatment and that their employment conditions met the minimum standards set by labor law. Only then does the guest worker receive an exit visa from Jordan.

If it's suspected that a guest worker's rights were infringed upon, the verification process becomes an investigation and the worker is not permitted to leave the country. In these instances, the Labor Ministry summons the employer for inquiry. The new regulations also state that subverting a labor investigation, for example, by threatening a guest worker, constitutes a felony.  During the period of the investigation, the guest worker is entitled to work for another employer.

Jordanian authorities raised an iron fist against employers following many complaints received by human rights organizations in Amman related to the exploitation of guest workers by employers. The number of guest workers in Jordan is larger than the number found in Israel. In Jordan, there are some 280,000 legal guest workers who constitute about 20 percent of the Jordanian labor force, with the number of illegal foreign workers estimated to be close to 200,000. The new regulations are just another phase of the war Jordanian authorities are waging against the exploitation of foreign workers. But instead of chasing after illegal workers, Jordanian authorities are increasing the protection of their rights so that the temptation to bring them from other countries (principally Egypt) will decrease as much as possible.

The responsibility and initiative taken by the Jordanian government in protecting the rights of guest workers, and indirectly protecting the rights of all workers in the labor market (by preventing a race to the bottom on labor standards through the unregulated use of guest workers) are impressive when compared with the complete lack of action taken by the relevant Israeli authorities to protect migrant workers from mistreatment. Just this week, Kav LaOved ("Worker's Hotline") published a report that describes the disgraceful exploitation of Palestinian workers in Israel "as a result of the powerlessness of the authorities tasked with enforcing the law among employers, who are betraying their jobs in a criminal manner."  

Perhaps we really do live in the jungle, but it isn't clear which side of the river the villa is located on.

The writer is a lawyer who volunteers with the non-profit Tevel B'tzedek, which promotes social justice in the Third World.