Agricultural laborers: Legalized serfdom

The rights enshrined in Jordan’s labor and social security laws don’t apply to agricultural laborers. This aberration harms the sector and the country’s wider economy.   

By Jawad J. Abbassi

Unskilled agricultural workers in Jordan have very few rights. The Labor Law specifically states that its provisions don’t apply to them. So these workers don’t benefit from stipulations guaranteeing a minimum wage, limits on working hours, overtime pay, protection against arbitrary terminations, annual vacations, and sick leave.

Unskilled agricultural workers are also not covered by the social security safety net. Social security enrollment is mandatory only for workers covered by the Labor Law. This means they lack social security insurance against death or disability, and aren’t enrolled in a state retirement and pension plan.

This legalized serfdom of agriculture laborers should not stand. No society in the Twenty-First century can continue with such disregard for basic working rights. This situation may well be the most important factor why young Jordanians shun agricultural work, which is dominated by unskilled cheap expatriate labor. Rectifying this situation could help reduce the Kingdom’s chronic unemployment problem amongst the youth.

Pointing out the ill-fortune of agricultural laborers doesn’t necessarily mean farm owners are part of the problem. A majority suffer from low profitability and frequent losses. In Jordan’s agricultural sector, the middlemen, merchants, and the government win at the expense of farm owners, laborers, and consumers. This is mainly due to regulations and excessive fees. The regulations forbid farmers from selling their produce wholesale except through intermediaries in specified markets. Farmers pay a fee on produce entering the wholesale markets, as well as pay 6 percent in fees to middlemen. On average, farmers pay 10 percent of their sales in fees and commissions regardless of whether they made a profit or not. While agriculture is exempt from income tax, farmers end up paying an effective tax far exceeding other sectors due to these wholesale market levies.

The agricultural sector needs urgent rebalancing to alleviate the burdens on labor and farm owners. This could be achieved by applying the provisions of the labor and social security laws to all agriculture workers without any exception. This would make the work more attractive for Jordanians and help reduce youth unemployment. Enforcing social security enrollment on business owners that employ expatriate workers could also have the added benefit of reducing the black market for agriculture work permits used by workers to enter Jordan and then join other sectors illegally. Slashing the fees paid by farmers at wholesale markets could also help matters. This would enhance their profit margins and compensate farm owners for the extra labor costs and enhance their profitability. While another possible solution could be to allow farmers to sell to merchants wholesale directly without intermediaries if they so wish. This removes the current monopoly on wholesale distinction which benefits middlemen and merchants at the expense of consumers and farmers.