Unrest in Jordan has its roots in an economic divide

Hani Hamdan
Hani Hamdan: Employers in Jordan are largely unregulated.
Submitted photo

By Hani Hamdan

Hani Hamdan lives in Burnsville and practices dentistry in Lakeville, Minn. He is a contributor and editor of Engagemn.com and a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.

The civil unrest in the country of Jordan is the result of complicated local and international circumstances. Blame gets thrown in all directions among the public, the royal family, successive governments, business tycoons and influential tribes. In my limited view, no one is free of guilt except perhaps the impoverished working class. One reason for the unrest would be familiar to Americans in this election season: specifically, the debate about how much government regulation is necessary to ensure fair worker wages and benefits.

To many who have lived in Jordan, myself included, it is a perplexing place, because despite my certain knowledge that the majority of people live on very tight budgets, I can't help but notice the overly extravagant lifestyle that some Jordanians enjoy.

Food prices keep going up, traumatizing a large swath of the population, yet high-end coffee shops in the capital, Amman, always seem busy. Fuel prices rise to more expensive levels than Minnesota's, but you see Hummers audaciously roving the jagged streets. Buying clothes in Jordan is a royal rip-off compared to the United States, but shopping malls with their posh clothing stores never seem to go out of business.

This in spite of the fact that many Jordanians cannot afford cars. Real estate prices have also risen so high that many cannot afford to buy, but only rent. I couldn't wrap my head around all of that until my sister started teaching at a private school. That's when I started to formulate a partial understanding of the situation.

My sister was considered lucky to have been selected to work at this high profile, expensive school, presumably because her compensation would be good compared to other schools. Turns out, that compensation was a dismal $2 an hour in a country where most prices keep pace with the global market.

And the employee abuse she endured is simply astounding. To cite a few examples: The school was taking money out of her salary for health insurance that she found out never existed. A colleague was told that her job would be in jeopardy if she took more than 40 days off for maternity leave. Teachers are fined 1,000 dinars (about $1,400) for "resigning without good reason" regardless of ample notice. Teachers are expected to pay a fee for using the school's drinking water. Yes, it's that bad.

From friends and family I learned that this type of employee abuse is actually commonplace. As far as the government is concerned, employers in Jordan are largely unregulated. No requirement exists for minimum wage, and the few regulations on working conditions go unimplemented. Employers are essentially making their wealth by squeezing it out of the pockets of the working class.

To make matters worse, some employers are now extorting refugees from neighboring Syria by making them work for as little as half the wages of their Jordanian counterparts, which is forcing Jordanian workers into even lower compensations in order to stay in the job market. Jordanian workers complain about their new competitors, although I highly doubt that these workers themselves would behave any differently in their employers' shoes. There is a culture of "cheapness" in Jordan that has no limits on how low it can go. That is, unless laws are enforced to curb it.

The problem is that these employers and entrepreneurs are where the majority of power lies in Jordan. Each employer's power correlates with his wealth. If they're not filling seats in the Cabinet themselves, their political pawns are. Cabinet after Cabinet is assembled and discarded by the king to assuage an angry public, but the presence and influence of big money is reliably conspicuous.

This, among other manifestations of corruption, is leading to a tepid but eerie uprising that the royal family and the government-of-the-moment are working to keep from exploding. Fortunately, Jordan does not exhibit the harsh, humiliating rule of Syria, which is partly why there hasn't been an all-out revolution in Jordan. But any populace can handle only so much economic pressure.

The truly lucky seem to be those who are able to leave the country and are working abroad. Jordan graduates many more degree holders than it can employ. It seems part of an unspoken policy to export workers who can then support the economy indirectly by sending money to family.

Even after working so hard to earn a degree, a chance to live comfortably in one's own country seems too high an expectation.

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