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The Middle East @ Work

Migrant labor problems hit Jordan too

Alisa Roth Mar 14, 2008
The Middle East @ Work

Migrant labor problems hit Jordan too

Alisa Roth Mar 14, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: Jordan’s capital, Amman, is in the middle of a building boom. Iraqi businesses are relocating, and non-governmental organizations are setting up there, too. The construction companies need workers.But the men hanging out on street corners each morning looking for work aren’t locals. Educated Jordanians turn their noses up at this type of labor. Those willing to do construction work prefer to do it in the Gulf States, where they’re better paid. So most of the workers on Jordan’s construction sites are Egyptian. They’ve left their home country because the economy is struggling. There’s not much work there, and what there is, like farming, doesn’t pay well. Fortunately for them, the war’s ensuring there’s work aplenty in Amman.

Alisa Roth reports.

ALISA ROTH: There are more than a dozen men climbing around in the freezing cold on the rebar and wood skeleton, which by spring will be another fancy house in posh West Amman. Unemployment in Jordan is high. Officially it’s 13 percent. Unofficially, it’s closer to 30. Either way, not one of the men mixing concrete or cutting boards is Jordanian.

Tarek: Mainly we have Egyptian manpower.

ROTH: Why?

Tarek: Because this is very hard work. Jordanians, they are not interested in doing us hard work. That’s the yani true.

Tarek is Jordanian. He’s the contractor who’s building the house. He wouldn’t tell me his last name.

Tarek: Second thing, the manpower Egyptian is cheaper than the Jordanian. That’s the reason. And among the Jordanians, you can’t find the qualification, which is available with the Egyptian.

Tarek later contradicts himself saying he pays Jordanians and Egyptians the same: around $15 a day for unskilled labor. Around 20 for skilled. But one thing is true: look for a laborer in Jordan and you’ll most likely find an Egyptian.


This is where the Egyptians first arrive in Jordan. A chaotic ferry terminal in Aqaba, a port on the Red Sea. Thousands of people pour off the boat carrying enormous suitcases and parcels. Taxis and buses vie to take them to Amman and other cities. There, the men gather on street corners or in parking lots like this one. Near a gas station in northwest Amman to wait for work, which doesn’t always come. It’s after 9 on a weekday morning, the time when many give up and go home to their crowded apartments.

But today there’s a good crowd, hoping somebody still needs a couple of men for the day. Abood is one of them. He has short dark hair and a five o’clock shadow. He carries a plastic bag of work clothes.

Back in Egypt, he tells me, he and his father grew wheat. But they couldn’t make enough money to survive. So four years ago, Aboud left his father to keep working the farm. While he comes to this lot, getting work whenever he can, mostly laying bricks. He sends home about $200 a month, which doesn’t sound like much.

But if it wasn’t worth it, he says, I wouldn’t be here.

And there are plenty of people who wish he weren’t here. Like Robeea Said Ismael, who works in the gas station that owns the parking lot where the workers wait.

Ismael: Especially in the morning, it’s very disruptive to people who want to go to work. They want to get gas quickly and sometimes they don’t want to go to our gas station anymore.

Ismael says women complain that the workers harass them, but the workers have been coming to this parking lot for years. And he doesn’t have the heart or the nerve to try to boot them off.

In any case, it’s not clear the men are breaking the law by soliciting work this way. There are plenty of rumors about raids on work sites, but I watched a couple of police cars drive by without doing anything.

Even so, the men find the rumors scary because their status is precarious. As of last spring, all foreign workers have to have permits. All the workers I talked to of course claimed to have one. But if you ask a contractor like Tarek, nobody’s looking too hard.

ROTH: And do you check papers before you hire or don’t ask, don’t tell?

Tarek: No, I don’t check, it’s not my problem.

Tarek’s problem is finding capable workers at a good price, which he does by hiring Egyptians.

In Amman, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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