Originally posted March 2010

Migrant labor is more than ever part of economic life in a globalizing Middle East dependent on workers from across borders. Yet, with recession and unemployment buffeting Arab countries, are migrants less welcome? The average unemployment rate across the Middle East will rise to 11% in 2009, according to the International Labor Organization, which also estimates real GDP growth at 4% in 2009 (compared to 6% in 2007) though other forecasts put this even lower. The impact of the global crisis on employment at the regional level means that exceptional measures should be taken to address the situation. Recommendations of the Arab Economic Summit held in Kuwait in January 2009 included facilitating labor movement between Arab countries (as well as setting up a regional customs union by 2015 and an Arab common market by 2020). In fact, typically governments in such crises do the opposite: restricting the movement of goods, labor, and capital, in order to keep investments at home, and foreign workers and products out. Happily, in this globalized age, that is not easy, and more or less free flows of human resources (as well as of cash or goods) are not being affected drastically by the region’s current economic troubles.

Yet, other forces end up restricting labor flows into and out of the region as well as within it — in particular trends towards labor market regulation by governments. Irrespective of boom or slump, states are imposing tighter restrictions on guest workers to promote security, social cohesion, or the fight against chronic unemployment, among other goals. Jordan is a case in point: Jordan’s economy relies on guest workers in the primary, transformative, and services sectors. In some areas, their presence is crucial (e.g., Egyptians in agriculture, Bengalis in the textile industry, and Sri Lankans in domestic service); in turn, workers remit much needed funds home. However, the influx of migrants recently has been subject to more serious efforts at state control by both Jordanian and labor-sending countries alike.

In fact, Jordan’s and sending-countries’ attempts at regulation of the Kingdom’s migrant workers antedate the crisis; though the issue has been on ‘Amman’s agenda for over a decade, it was only in 2007 that Jordan started more seriously to regulate bilaterally the entry of workers from outside the Kingdom (as opposed to previous steps taken on a unilateral basis towards foreign workers). That year, Jordan signed memoranda with Egypt and other states to regulate the entry of workers into the Kingdom. Under the agreement between Jordan and Egypt, the sectors in which Egyptian laborers can work are specified (though some bending of the rules seems to take place). Laborers coming into the Kingdom from Egypt must meet (reasonable) Jordanian requirements, such as undergoing medical tests, holding certificates appropriate to the field of work, and proving that they have no criminal record.

Such tightening up is accompanied by guest worker deportation for violating job and residency regulations: approximately 313,000 non-Jordanian laborers held valid work permits at the end of 2007, rising to 318,000 in mid-2008 before falling to 304,000 by the end of that year, a drop partly due to the economic slowdown in Jordan. However, the trend was also due to the Kingdom getting tougher on guest workers, an attitude manifested by the expulsion of over 10,000 of them (mostly Egyptians) in 2008. Though much is still needed to organize the Kingdom’s guest worker sector, the process of legitimizing these workers continues, and well over 110,000 Egyptians have applied to work in the country in the two years since the ‘Amman-Cairo labor agreement. (Under the memorandum of understanding, which was only finalized in 2009, Egypt also is required to keep a database of all laborers seeking employment in Jordan, to be made accessible to all concerned parties.)

Yet, the news regarding guest workers coming to Jordan from other states is not as encouraging. For example, in 2009 the government enacted a two-week suspension of the recruitment from Indonesia and Sri Lanka of domestic workers in order to accredit medical centers in both countries that were suspected of issuing false certificates of good health to migrants who were in fact ill. To help solve the problem, a Jordanian delegation representing the government and the country’s recruitment association headed to Indonesia and Sri Lanka to accredit medical centers. Meanwhile, the Jordanian Health Ministry will terminate agreements with medical centers in Indonesia thought to have issued forged health certificates to domestics coming into Jordan. Many Indonesian workers are issued forged certificates that state they do not have any communicable disease; but during the first seven months of 2009, 181 Indonesian workers in Jordan tested positive for serious communicable illnesses, including tuberculosis, hepatitis, and HIV, while six Sri Lankan domestic workers were diagnosed with tuberculosis, two with hepatitis, and one with HIV during the same period. Of course, some of these ailments could have been picked up in Jordan, but the suspicion is that guest workers are sometimes turning up ill on arrival from these, and other, countries.

However, the inflow into Jordan of workers from both these countries is now subject to regulation, with Sri Lanka in 2007 and Indonesia in 2009 signing memoranda with Jordan to regulate the hiring of domestic helpers for work in the Kingdom. The agreement between Amman and Jakarta provides Indonesian domestic helpers with legal protection under the two countries’ legislation and activates the role of Indonesia’s Embassy in Jordan to address domestic helpers’ problems. About 1,000 Indonesian domestic workers in Jordan run away from employers annually, and the ‘Amman embassy offers them shelter, food, and basic needs until they can return to Indonesia (in 2009 the Embassy housed a few hundred of these girls).

Happily, however, most Indonesian guest workers in Jordan have not needed such sheltering: There are nearly 30,000 Indonesians (mostly in domestic work) currently employed in Jordan, up from 21,000 in 2007 (the figure for Sri Lankans has held steady at around 20,000 during the past few years). In fact, these two nationalities are the largest non-Arab ones in the Kingdom’s labor force today. However, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, and all other workers from outside the Arab world still make up only a small minority of Jordan’s guest workers. The situation for migrants from Arab countries, led by Egypt, is on its way to being regularized — an important step to stabilize labor markets in times of rising unemployment. After having fallen the past few years, Jordan’s jobless rate again has risen, to 14%. This is a further challenge to the status of migrant workers in the Kingdom. It will be interesting to observe the sustainability of bilateral state controls on migrants in the context of recession and of rising unemployment, among other important elements with an impact on labor markets.