The Emergence of a New Labor Movement in Jordan

by Fida Adely
published in MER264

Although Jordan may appear little affected by the Arab uprisings, as early as January 2011 Jordanians were in the streets for the same reasons Tunisians and Egyptians were: protesting against economic conditions and privatization of state resources, demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet, and calling for political reform and an end to elite corruption. The protests persist, with marches nearly every week, and include traditional opposition groups like the Muslim Brothers and leftists, as well as self-proclaimed “popular reform movements” that are forming throughout the country. At least two umbrella organizations have emerged to bring these movements together. The protesters are spread out geographically, but they are unified in their anti-corruption stance and their demands are expressly political. Some openly call for restricting the powers of the king and establishing a constitutional monarchy. The pro-reform groups are now coalescing around their rejection of the new electoral law, which they deem unresponsive, and the boycott of parliamentary elections slated for late 2012.

Perhaps most dramatic of all is the increase in labor protests, strikes and similar actions. In 2011 alone, Jordan Labor Watch, an initiative of the Amman-based Phenix Center for Economics and Informatics Studies, documented over 800 labor actions. [1] The labor front began to heat up in 2006, but really did so with the Arab revolts, which have forced the regime to cede greater public space to political dissent. The scale of labor action is unprecedented, with workers from every sector, with the exception of security forces, engaged in some sort of protest. Teachers, bank tellers, imams, phosphate and potassium workers, university employees, journalists, taxi drivers, nurses and doctors at state-run hospitals -- the list goes on. Some of the labor actions also advance a political agenda that coincides to a large degree with that of the pro-reform protests.

No Coincidence

Labor and union activism in Jordan dates to the early 1950s. Since at least the mid-1970s, however, it has been stymied by government repression and cooptation, as well as political infighting. [2] As a result, leading up to 2011, trade unions did not truly represent workers. Jordanian law, for instance, provides no mechanism for establishing new unions and requires workers to present their grievances via official unions rather than through strikes or protests. The government, indeed, keeps close watch over any and all public gatherings. Prior to 2011, the organizers of meetings or protests were required to obtain a license; in March of that year, the law was amended so that they need only inform authorities of their plans.

Despite these restrictions, between 2006 and 2009 there were important protests mounted by phosphate workers, port workers and day laborers in the public sector. In addition, workers in the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), who are primarily expatriates, have organized several protests in the past decade -- over 30 in 2010 alone. As non-citizens, these workers labor under highly exploitative conditions and are vulnerable to mass arrest and deportation. [3]

In 2010, Jordan Labor Watch reported over 140 labor actions of some kind, a significant increase over preceding years. The most obvious reasons for the protest wave related to the dire economic situation: the rising cost of fuel and utilities, depreciating wages and growing unemployment. Jordanians associated these difficult circumstances with the privatization of several key public assets, which coincided with the economic downturn. The disquiet about the “selling-off of the country” reached such heights in 2008 that King ‘Abdallah II felt compelled to print a full-page rebuttal (in large, bold-face type) in the semi-official newspaper, al-Ra’y. The king blamed irresponsible journalism for tarnishing Jordan’s record of economic accomplishments, while defending government efforts to privatize some national resources. [4]

It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the workers who protested prior to 2011 were in sectors directly affected by the new economic policies.

In July 2009, port workers at the ‘Aqaba Development Corporation (created in 2004 as part of the ‘Aqaba Special Economic Zone) struck to protest job losses and the terms of housing compensation agreements connected to the sale of port land to an Emirati conglomerate. Their two-day sit-in involved 3,000-4,000 participants. Gendarmes (known in Jordan as the darak) then moved in, beating up the workers, severely injuring one, and arresting 65 others, according to Human Rights Watch and the National Center for Human Rights in Jordan. The leader of this protest suffered a punitive job transfer and a cut in salary. The state-affiliated General Federation of Trade Unions initially represented the port workers, but worker representatives eventually rejected its mediation because of the compromises it was willing to make with management. The port workers subsequently received official guarantees that they could establish their own union and have since established a steering committee for this purpose.

There was another large strike in 2009, among workers in the Jordanian Phosphate Company, which the state sold to private investors in 2006. Although the phosphate workers initially accepted their designated representative, the General Trade Union of Workers in Mining and Metal Industries, they reported increasing dissatisfaction with its bargaining and established their own union in late 2011. In February 2012, workers under the auspices of this new union called for another strike, which succeeded in completely shutting down the operations of the company. Management was forced to negotiate with the independent union, although officially it was the General Trade Union of Workers in Mining and Metal Industries that signed off on the agreement, as the independent union has no legal status.

About 75 percent of protests in 2010 involved workers in the private sector. But public-sector protests, though smaller in number, also paved the way for the next year’s heightened labor action, voicing the demand for the right to unionize. For example, schoolteachers established the Committee for the Revival of the Teachers’ Professional Association. Members of this committee organized 12 protests in 2010, demanding higher salaries, as well as a union of their own. Teachers were also visible at political protests in early 2011, raising their union demands amidst calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa‘i and his government. By mid-2011, they had gained assurances from the new premier, Ma‘rouf al-Bakhit, that the government would draft the necessary legislation for the formation of a teachers’ union. Later in the year, however, the teachers’ leaders felt the government was dragging its feet and called upon the rank and file to strike. The teachers responded, and in early 2012, schools shut down, leading to the establishment of a union and an election of officers.

Prior to 2011, employers (public and private), the regime and its security apparatus often responded to labor actions with coercion -- arrests, punitive transfers and firings, particularly of organizers. Alternatively, employers dangled carrots in front of labor leaders to dissuade them from their activism. In some cases, workers’ demands were partially met, or promises were made thereof, as a means of deescalating confrontations. Yet the sheer number of labor protests since the start of 2011, alongside small but persistent political protests, has left the regime unable to quell worker discontent.

Day Laborers in the Public Sector

The case of the day laborers is illustrative, both in terms of official responses and because many drew inspiration from their initial success. The day laborers described here were working directly for government ministries. (Day laborers are sometimes hired through private contracting firms as well.) They had no union, official or otherwise, and in 2006 were making as little as 90 dinars ($127) per month. In an era of neoliberal economic policies, and pressures to shrink the public sector, the number of workers in such positions -- characterized by job insecurity, little to no benefits and low wages -- has increased around the globe.

In May 2006, day laborers at the Ministry of Agriculture held a sit-in led by Muhammad al-Sunayd, who has since become the public face of their union. Within two weeks of this action, the workers had a meeting with Bakhit, who was then serving his first term as prime minister. (He was dismissed in November 2007 and reappointed in February 2011.) Their primary demands were higher wages, appointment as civil servants, with the attendant job security, and the right to benefits. In addition, they asked the prime minister to commit to ending the system of employing day laborers in the public sector, arguing that it was exploitative. Salaries were immediately hiked and, according to worker representatives, the prime minister pledged that the government would transfer day laborers into the civil service over a three-year period beginning in 2007. Given the sheer number of workers involved, worker representatives considered this timetable to be reasonable and agreed. Under Bakhit’s directive, the council of ministers issued a resolution indicating the intention to end the day laborer system in public agencies. But the government of Prime Minister Nadir al-Dhahabi replaced Bakhit’s before it could deliver on its promises.

To demand that the new government honor the commitments of its predecessor, the day laborers organized a second sit-in on May 1, 2007. This time 750 workers participated, gathering in front of the Parliament building and marching to the prime minister’s residence. Soon thereafter ‘Abdallah II once again dissolved the government, bringing Samir al-Rifa‘i and his cabinet into power. Al-Rifa‘i, under increasing pressure from worker actions, eventually fulfilled the pledge to integrate day laborers into the civil service, although he imposed conditions, for instance a literacy requirement, that excluded about 250 workers from the deal. Further, though Bakhit had called a halt to the day laborer system in the ministries, 250 day laborers were hired after this decision. When these 250 were abruptly fired, the day laborers staged yet another protest on May 1, 2010, this time at the Complex of the Professional Syndicates in Amman, demanding the reinstatement of these workers and accusing the ministry of mishandling public funds. At this protest, Muhammad al-Sunayd was informed that he had been fired from his job at the Ministry of Agriculture. Two weeks later, at a sit-in at an event attended by the agriculture minister, Sunayd was arrested and accused of slandering the minister. Sunayd’s arrest galvanized further protests, with sit-ins occurring on an almost weekly basis in 2010. He was released within days but was not reinstated in his job for another year. At the time Sunayd was interviewed for this article, he had been arrested four times, and was detained again in July 2012, after calling on the darak to apprehend “the corrupt ones.” [5] Leaders of the day labor movement in the municipalities have also faced arrest.

Labor leaders like Sunayd represent a new face of activism in Jordan. He is himself a long-time day laborer and a resident of Dhiban, considered by some to be the site of the first significant political protest in 2011. In January of that year, Dhiban residents protested against price hikes, the misuse of local resources and government corruption, and called for the removal of the al-Rifa‘i government. As Sunayd himself has indicated, he and many labor activists clearly view their work as aligned with that of the growing political opposition. In many respects, the work of leaders in the day laborer movement, phosphate workers, port workers and teachers laid the groundwork for the groundswell of protest in 2011.

Breaking the Barrier of Fear

In 2011, barely a day went by without some type of labor action. At the end of the year, Jordan Labor Watch counted 829 worker protests and the group reports that 560 labor protests had already occurred by mid-2012. Some of these labor actions were brief and small-scale and some of the protesters were quickly satisfied with management concessions. Other workers, however, have been protesting for several years and their demands have grown political. In 2011, the growth in labor activism was fueled by the courage of demonstrators across the region, as well as the government’s seeming unwillingness to crush protest in the newly charged political environment.

Labor demonstrations went hand in hand with more expressly political protests, which were largely focused on economic policies, corruption and greater political participation. And several of the most prominent and long-lived labor initiatives expressed political aspirations alongside the bread-and-butter demands. Journalists called for editorial freedom. Day laborers and other public-sector workers demanded greater financial accountability and accused public officials of corruption. The phosphate workers were motivated partly by accusations of corruption in the privatization of the Jordanian phosphate company. In 2011, indeed, a parliamentary committee began an investigation into the company’s sale, but the results were never released. One of the most important goals of the emerging labor movement is the right to establish independent and representative unions. It is on this front that the most prominent labor activists have begun to coalesce.

Jordanian law stipulates that workers have a right to unionize; article 84 of the labor law, however, states that workers are restricted to membership in 17 trade unions. With a few important exceptions, existing trade unions are viewed by both Jordanian labor activists and outside observers as unrepresentative of worker interests and too closely aligned with government policies and management interests. Further, as in many sectors of public life, there is a long and documented history of state security interference in union activities, such as the appointment and approval of union leadership and worker representatives. In 2010, only two unions held elections for president and only three of the 17 trade unions held elections for their board members. [6] Labor activists reported that even when elections were held, unions restricted who could run for office and elections were often not fair.

Many of the labor activists interviewed for this article talked about their attempts to work through their official unions. Some, such as the leaders of the Independent Trade Union of Jordanian Electricity Workers, stated that they had worked for years to breathe new life into this institution and to open it up to greater participation from a broader swath of workers. Similar efforts were made within the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions. The general sentiment among those in the independent union movement, however, was that these efforts largely failed. The emphasis accordingly has been on creating new trade unions to represent workers better and lobbying to rewrite the law so that these new unions can receive official recognition. Although several amendments have been proposed to the labor law, with some support in Parliament, to date no legislative change has been made. The Phenix Center/Jordan Labor Watch, in its capacity as both a monitoring and reporting organization, as well as an advocacy group, has put forth a draft of new legislation that they argue is needed for Jordan to meet its obligations as a member of the International Labor Organization. [7]

In the meantime, labor activists have taken matters into their own hands. As of June 2011, six independent trade unions had been formed, without anyone asking permission any longer, and several other worker groups were heading in this direction. Workers in these independent unions also established their own General Federation of Independent Unions. Given their lack of legal status, these independent unions are not allowed to collect membership fees or even establish bank accounts in the union’s name. Furthermore, any negotiations or agreements that they undertake on behalf of workers need to be legitimated by the legally recognized unions. Nevertheless, in spite of their failure to obtain official recognition, these independent unions have become the de facto tribunes of workers and their grievances. In the cases of the Independent Union of the Phosphate Workers and the Independent Trade Union of Jordanian Electricity Workers, it is the independent unions who have wielded the people power needed to force management to the table. The struggle continues to ensure that agreements are fulfilled.

As labor scholars of the region have long argued, there are no hard and fast lines between economic grievances and political demands. [8] In Jordan, many of the labor demands are linked to wider grievances about neoliberal economic policies, corruption and government accountability that are central concerns of political reform groups, both old and new. Some of the most contentious and long-lived labor organizing has struck at the heart of neoliberal economic policies that have led, for example, to an increased reliance on day laborers and contract workers in the public sector, or the privatization of national industries such as the phosphate company. It is here that worker grievances most explicitly overlap with those of the political opposition. At a deeper level, labor organizing and the independent labor movement have far-reaching implications for political development, as they may help in the emergence of stronger civil society organizations and a broader-based opposition.

With national debt nearing $20 billion and severe crises of water and other natural resources, the grievances of workers in Jordan will not be easily addressed. Rumors circulate that the government is struggling to pay salaries from month to month, despite Saudi and European promises of billions in aid and continued financial support from the United States. These are old problems that have become more acute. What has changed is that Jordanians are no longer silent -- and labor activists have been at the forefront of breaking the barrier of fear.

Endnotes

[1] Jordan Labor Watch, “Labor Protests in Jordan During 2011,” Issue 1 (Amman, 2012).
[2] Hani al-Hourani, The Jordanian Labor Movement: History, Structure and Challenges (Bonn: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2001), accessible online at: http://library.fes.de/fulltext/iez/01144toc.htm.
[3] National Labor Committee, US-Jordan Free Trade Agreement Descends into Human Trafficking and Involuntary Servitude (New York, 2006), accessible online at: http://www.nlcnet.org/admin/reports/files/Jordan_Report_2006.pdf.
[4] Al-Ra’y, July 2, 2008.
[5] Fi al-Mirsad, July 17, 2012.
[6] Jordan Labor Watch, “Freedom of Association in Jordan,” Issue 2 (Amman, 2012).
[7] Phenix Center for Economics and Informatics Studies/Jordan Labor Watch, “A Draft Law Proposal: Trade Unions Activity Regulation” (Amman, September 2011).
[8] Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel, Social Movements, Mobilization and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

Filed under: