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Jordan: Foreign NGOs dismiss local staff after Covid-19 protection law exemption

NRC, Mercy Corps and LWF release 70-plus employees after receiving exemptions from government pandemic measures
Syrian refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp, 80km north of the Jordanian capital Amman on 15 February 2021. (AFP)

At least three international NGOs have dismissed local Jordanian staff in recent months having covertly obtained government exemptions from a Covid-19 worker protection law, according to documents and interviews given to Middle East Eye.

In response to the revelations, Jordanian MPs have promised to raise the issue in parliament.

The protection legislation, Defence Order No. 6, was passed in April 2020 and bans employers from dismissing workers during the pandemic, which has battered Jordan’s already frail economy.

MEE reported last week that 31 international NGOs and foreign ambassadors were pressuring Jordanian authorities for exemptions to the law in order to dismiss local staff, saying the measure had left some of the organisations “on the brink of failure”.

Their campaign appears to have worked.

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MEE spoke to dismissed former employees from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Mercy Corps, and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), who were told that government exemptions to the order meant they could be let go.

“This is a scandal,” Moath al-Momani, a legal expert at Lawyers Without Borders, told MEE.

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“These exceptions are contrary to justice and the rule of law. It is not permissible to give foreign organisations the right to fire employees and at the same time not allow local companies.”

Two Jordanian MPs, Omar al-Ayasra and Yanal Freihat, told MEE they will raise the issue in parliament as soon as possible.

“This is against the law,” said Ayasra, adding that the dismissed should file legal complaints.

Released staff told MEE of 72 such cases: 45 from the NRC, 22 from Mercy Corps, and five from the LWF. The NGOs did not confirm those numbers when approached.

Many more may have lost their jobs or be at risk. It is unknown if exemptions have been given to other international NGOs or whether there are plans to do so.

The NGOs argue that they are being forced to keep paying employees on fixed-term contracts who would be released when their project ends, though the workers contend that it is common for contracts to roll over to maintain their presence at the end of specific schemes.

According to a letter the EU delegation in Amman sent to authorities in November, 269 local employees of foreign NGOs had been forcibly retained by the end of 2021 because of the defence order, despite their contracts ending. Funding was also "unsecured" for another 150 staff contracts in 2022, it said.

Government officials have not responded to numerous interview requests, while the NGOs declined to answer questions on how many staff have been dismissed and how exemptions were granted.

Defence Order No. 6, which restricted some wage cuts and stipulated that companies must retain workers until the pandemic passes, was brought in to stabilise Jordan’s economy, which was already faltering before Covid-19 reached the kingdom.

The measure has been criticised for not including informal or migrant workers, and for forcing employers to pay retained employees’ wages. One hotel owner told MEE he loses $60,000 per month in salaries because of the order.

Prime Minister Bishr al-Khasawneh, however, says the law has preserved 100,000 jobs and promised that it will remain in place until the pandemic is over. “Without the Defence Law, the holders of these jobs would have already joined the ranks of the unemployed,” he said last week.

Jordan: Mercy Corps is exempt

A dismissal document obtained by MEE appears to show that Jordan’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation gave a defence order exemption to Mercy Corps, a US-based NGO with roughly 400,000 beneficiaries across Jordan.

“In light of our obtaining the above-mentioned exception,” the NGO wrote, “we hereby inform you that Mercy Corps wishes to terminate the indefinite employment contract.”

One former employee in their 20s, who spoke on condition of anonymity like all dismissed staff interviewed for this piece, told MEE they were released along with around 20 other members of Mercy Corps’ Jordanian staff. None of their other former colleagues felt comfortable speaking to a journalist.

The Ministry of Planning has not responded to MEE’s requests to see a copy of its letter confirming the exemption. The British embassy, one of the NGO’s donors, is also mentioned in the Mercy Corps document. It didn’t respond to a request for clarification on its role in the dismissals.

MEE understands that some foreign NGOs have secured exemptions by getting donor countries to confirm the end of funding for certain projects that employees' fixed-term contracts were linked to.

'This is a scandal. These exceptions are contrary to justice and the rule of law'

- Moath Al-Momani, Lawyers Without Borders

The UK ambassador and 14 others, writing as “representatives of the donor community”, signed a letter in August addressed to the government requesting “assistance” to help NGOs deal with the burden of Defence Order 6.

"No one has the right to cancel [the order] except the prime minister himself,” said Momani of Lawyers Without Borders. “The minister of planning does not have the authority to stop defence orders.”

The ex-Mercy Corps employee worked for the NGO for several years before their dismissal in December.

“There’s no jobs in Jordan. Wallahi I apply every day for 10 to 12 vacancies, but no one calls you. Because of Defence Order 6, every organisation [says]: ‘We can’t hire anyone, just internal.’”

Another former Mercy Corps employee in their 30s described being told they were being released because of Covid, and being shown no documents to prove the move's legality.

“Now I’m at home, there are no chances for work… life is too difficult," they said.

A Mercy Corps spokesperson told MEE that the NGO is “unable to comment on the specifics of individual employee contracts due to privacy and data protection issues… As the country faces Covid‑19, we are adapting our programmes so that we can still safely support the communities we serve and help to prevent the spread of the virus.”

LWF dismissal notices

MEE has also seen three dismissal documents given in January to employees of the Lutheran World Federation, a Swiss Protestant NGO with more than 55,000 beneficiaries in Jordan, most of whom are refugees.

All bear the name of the LWF country director and make reference to a letter from the Ministry of Planning excluding the NGO from the defence order.

One former employee told MEE that they and four other colleagues were released in the same fashion.

“The government is hiding the defence order exemptions that it has given to the NGOs, we haven’t seen it anywhere,” he said.

The LWF did not reply to requests for comment.

NRC workers let go

Two former employees of the Norwegian Refugee Council, an NGO with more than 210,000 beneficiaries across the kingdom, said the NRC informed them in December, days before Christmas, that they had obtained government exemptions to release 45 NRC staff at the end of the year.

Both told MEE that the NRC refused to give them any documentation proving the exemption.

A third source with knowledge of the dismissals confirmed that 45 people were released.

One of the former employees told MEE: “Every time I apply for [a] job, the answer is always ‘you are over-qualified’.” The other complained they had worked for NRC for several years.

Both told MEE that when a group of the dismissed employees showed up to a meeting at the NRC offices on 24 December, a large group of police was waiting for them outside the building.

According to the sources, several of the released employees signed papers at the meeting agreeing that the NRC would give them two months’ salary.

Their signatures mean that complaints cannot now be raised about the dismissals, they said.

An NRC spokesperson told MEE: “For reasons of privacy and data protection, NRC does not comment publicly on staff contractual matters. Our organisation remains committed to helping people who have been displaced and those in need of humanitarian assistance.”

The Jordan INGO Forum (JIF), which represents 61 foreign NGOs in the country, told MEE that it had discussions with the Jordanian government over ways to "ensure NGOs can maintain access and humanitarian assistance to support all refugees and vulnerable Jordanians during the pandemic".

"Such dialogue is the norm in Jordan and other countries. However JIF does not publicly comment on government policy or government decisions, nor is it our place to do so," it said.

"The priority for all JIF members continues to be protecting current levels of humanitarian assistance delivered to those most in need. As INGOs, our responsibility is to ensure that our funding is used to assist those most in need by continuing to provide the support and services that we do.”

‘A guillotine hanging over Jordan’

The pandemic has wrought serious damage to Jordan's economy.

A paper published in 2020 by the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated that job losses during Jordan’s aggressive lockdown were over 20 percent, while average household income fell by one-fifth.

Unemployment now sits around 25 percent. In May 2021, youth unemployment reached a staggering 50 percent.

The raft of Covid-19 temporary defence orders has not masked the gravity of Jordan's worsening unemployment crisis.

“Once you lift this defence order [no.6], the private sector will release a third of its workers,” one prominent businessman told the prime minister at a dinner in autumn 2021, according to someone who witnessed the conversation.

Veteran journalist Saad Hattar described these impending redundancies to MEE as “a guillotine hanging over Jordan”.

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