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Values at work: a case of labourers in agribusiness (Jordan)

Valeurs au travail, valeur du travail : le cas des saisonniers de l’agriculture capitaliste dans la Vallée du Jourdain
Mauro Van Aken
p. 109-131


Dans un contexte marqué depuis un demi siècle par les conflits et les exodes, la frontière qui sépare la rive orientale jordanienne du Jourdain, de la Cisjordanie occupée, a été transformée par la politique de modernisation rurale intensive. Ce processus a engendré de nouvelles idées et valeurs autour du travail et des travailleurs. La présence des réfugiés palestiniens, qui se sont installés au milieu des bédouins jordaniens de la tribu des Ghawarneh, et après 1970, l’arrivée des ouvriers égyptiens, et d’une petite communauté pakistanaise, ont créé une situation où les questions d’appartenance interfèrent en permanence avec les conditions de travail de l’agrobusiness. L’article met l’accent sur les idées et les pratiques de travail des acteurs locaux, leur compréhension des nouvelles catégories de travail, leurs perceptions culturelles, qui représentent une dimension cruciale de la définition des identités et des frontières sociales. La focalisation sur les communautés marginales éclaire la hiérarchie qui s’est instaurée dans la vallée, et les significations changeantes des relations salariales articulées sur les définitions ethniques et de classe.

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1The landscape of the east bank of the Jordan Valley has been reshaped over the past fifty years by conflict and displacement, but even more, by agribusiness. Intensive rural modernisation, new ideas of productivity and of work and a new water management system have radically transformed the peculiar borderland that separates the Jordanian east bank from the Occupied Territories on the West bank.

  • 1 We refer to Pakistani in terms of “communities” since the different groups coming from Baluchistan (...)

2Palestinians found refuge on the east bank of the Jordan Valley (JV) following the displacements of 1948 and 1967, and settled among other social groups, all of whom share a general lack of attachment to the Ghor (the local name for JV). Belonging and a sense of community in this region refers often to other places. This is the case for Bedouins of Transjordanian origin, for Egyptian migrant labourers, for the smaller Pakistani communities1, who are now in their third generation in the area, but even for the Ghawarneh tribe – the alleged native population of the valley – due to the transformations in the local management of resources. Indeed, the JV is a valley full of “others”, who perceive their situation as one of displacement and transformation.

3In a context of strong planning intervention and aid presence, I will focus on the different ideas and practices of work performed by local actors in agribusiness and their cultural understanding of the new categories of labour. Indeed, values are at work here : from the perspective of heterogeneous communities, there are different and changing notions of “work” and the “working person” in intensive market agriculture. These cultural perceptions are a crucial part of local identities and social boundaries (Barth, 1969).

4The new categories of work in agribusiness have overlapped the “traditional” and local meanings of work. In this heterogeneous frame, the values of work recognised by social actors are crucial to understand the hierarchy that has appeared in the valley and the changing significance of wage relations that are enmeshed in ethnic and class definitions. These patterns of values represent a definite mode for legitimising the economic segmentation engendered over the past decades. At the same time, the different groups of labourers must not be understood merely as passive victims of an exploitative relation, but in terms of the various cultural meanings and agency they accord to their working relations and presence in the valley.

  • 2 The fieldwork was conducted from 1999 to 2000 and for several months between 2001-2003 in the Deir (...)

5Based on fieldwork done in the central region of the JV2, this study will focus on marginalized communities, such as Ghawarneh and Palestinian refugees of slave origin (‘abid), for whom the control of labour resources is a strategic asset. Furthermore, I will devote special attention to the perspective of Egyptian wage labourers, who, as a major migrant community, stand at the bottom of the hierarchy both economically and symbolically.

6The Jordan Valley exhibits a transnational context of workers in a region that witnessed a “super-green revolution” (S. Elmusa, 1994) in the Middle East : here the meanings of labour intimately overlap the values of mobility and migration. In fact, labour hierarchy is connected to an economic segmentation, which itself overlaps a hierarchy of displaced communities : an aspect that becomes more and more relevant even in the study of a localised activity such as agriculture. Indeed, farming in the Jordan Valley has become progressively a mobile and flexible capital investment.

7I will begin with a brief review of planning in this strategic region and then focus on the greenhouse, which has become one of the most intensive areas for cultivation, where the meanings and values of agricultural work are redefined and socialised. Following this analysis, I will deal with those values associated with labour, which are intimately linked with the gender meanings relating to work in agriculture. Finally, I will consider the migrant hierarchy that has developed around agribusiness in order to illustrate the meanings of work among migrant labour in a context of regional and international labour market interdependence.

Displacement, labourers and discipline of a border

  • 3 The Mafraq region, in northern Jordan near the Syrian border, has been highly interdependent with t (...)
  • 4 The case of Syrian women is yet a new and minor phenomenon in the JV compared to the overwhelming p (...)

8A couple of years ago I met an Italian investor in the JV, who had extended his business of Italian sun-dried tomatoes in the valley in as much as this region had the competitive advantage of entering the seasonal market of this specific product one month earlier than many other countries, such as Tunisia and Turkey. The Italian manager acknowledged the low cost of seasonal labour, although he complained about the ability and productivity of workers. Asked who were the labourers working in his farm, he asserted in front of dozens of women and girls cutting and laying tomatoes to dry on special open-air tables set in the sun, that they were all Jordanian, and that they would be called in daily by his Jordanian manager depending on the workload. In reality, when I spoke with one of the Egyptian labourers, I easily understood that most of the girls were Syrian, commuting from the Mafraq region3 where they were already working as migrant seasonal labourers, while the men were all Egyptians. In the context of a transnational and flexible agricultural labour, it was normal to ignore who the labourers were and where they were coming from4.

9Agribusiness has indeed integrated the valley into a larger labour market and has transformed many peasants, both Palestinian refugees and migrants, into wage labour. The principal crops today are tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants, while oranges and bananas are the main perennial crops, under different levels of technological investment, intensity of production and labour organisation.

  • 5 Jordanians also include Palestinians who have acquired the Jordanian nationality.
  • 6 Pakistanis were displaced by ethnic violence from the Punjab and Baluchistan regions, and remain “a (...)

10Today, in the context of the economic stratification that cuts across all communities and in the context of the agricultural crisis engendered by the lack of market opportunity and by increasing regional competition in the agricultural sector, many Jordanian5 men have opted for off-farm activities or are involved in agriculture as tenants or as part-time farmers. Jordanian male wage labourers have virtually disappeared from agribusiness, replaced since the early 1980s by Egyptians and to a lesser degree, by the smaller Pakistani communities6.

11Egyptians in particular constitute a rotational, temporary, though structural labour migration in the local economy since they make up the overwhelming majority of male wage labour in the valley. A new displacement has recently occurred with the expulsion of Egyptian illegal workers which made their presence even more precarious and vulnerable. This, of course, strongly contrasts with the open-door policy activated in the past in the name of Arab unity : the Arab labourer welcomed and privileged in the 1970s, has become the “illegal worker” subject to expulsion in 2003, the obvious scapegoat of local economic problems and a main competitor to marginal Jordanian communities.

12Palestinian refugees, today unto the fourth generation, have developed a sense of community characterised by a general lack of attachment to the valley and by continual reference to a past of displacements and to the scattered transnational family networks of the present. The economical and social insecurity in the valley, caused by the persistent agricultural crisis and the fragility of making a home on a border, has led to continuous attempts of out-farm activities and in some cases, to emigrate. The valley remains, in fact, a place to leave, although not everybody has the ability and capital to emigrate or to join family networks abroad. The emigration of Palestinians and Jordanians from the Jordan Valley has been for decades a major strategy within the multiple economy of the households.

13Furthermore, even the Transjordanian Bedouin tribes that used to control the land, water and transport resources in the area, perceive their life-world disrupted by the strong impact of planning in transforming the tribal management of land (dirah) and water, due to the new spatial settings and to the disruption of their tribal organisation. In this context, agribusiness has played a major role in weakening the bond to land in the valley. In local perceptions, farming has often come to be considered as a temporary investment, a flexible business like any other, with changeable land patterns, high degrees of land fragmentation, and intensive but often unsustainable investment on rented tracts of land. This continuous variability has made it difficult for planners to ascertain the land patterns and crops cultivated over time, in a region that has witnessed the highest focus of agricultural policies in Jordan and enjoyed a high visibility for international aid.

14The Jordan Valley is in fact an area highly shaped by politics where agricultural planning has inevitably been affected by military strategies to stabilise a border area. Indeed, this valley has, in the last half century, been the object of high investment by large bureaucracies and international aid organisations and a site of intensive regional water disputes.

15Despite the explicit attempts, over the past fifty years, to establish a “new farmer community” via an agricultural resettlement program of Palestinian refugees, the outcome in fact has been a discontinuous bond to the land by local population, followed by a strong inflow of migrants. The example of greenhouses devoted to flower production for the EC market, with Israeli capital, knowledge and marketing network, a Jordanian landholder, and Egyptians or poor female Jordanian labourers, although not widespread, fits well in this context and obliges us to question the meanings of “farmer” and “farming”.

  • 7 Irrigated areas constitute 70 % of cultivable land in Jordan (Aydin, 1990), the rest being rainfed. (...)

16In contrast with the development target and label of an homogenous “Jordanian farmer community”, a project of social engineering, the population of the valley relies today on a multiple and diversified economy. This is partly linked to agribusiness, in terms of transport of agricultural products, marketing of agricultural inputs (fertilizers, chemicals, plastic boxes, on-farm irrigation infrastructure) and employment in the bureaucracies of development7, but local families invest mainly in off-farm activities, such as local administrations, the army, commuting to uplands‚ urban centres, and emigration. Furthermore, the agricultural crisis of the last two decades has caused high unemployment and irregular employment, mainly among young Jordanian men. This process is strongly connected to a redefinition of the meanings of “work”, from the moment that some wage activities are today avoided and not reputed work anymore.

From tribal territory to agribusiness

  • 8 The JV is characterised by low and irregular precipitation (from 100 mm. in the south to 360 mm. in (...)

17The East Jordan Valley is a one-hundred-kilometre long depression and varies in width between 4 and 6 km; in fact, it amounts to half of the valley, as the ecological unit was split by the political border on the Jordan river established after the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The harsh environment during the long hot summers makes living here difficult, while the mild winters have always been a source of attraction8. Moreover, the region is below sea level, which makes it a natural hothouse with temperatures 8 to 9 degrees higher than in the upland areas. But it has the advantage of producing winter cash crops at least two months earlier than other parts of the Middle East and it can be cultivated nearly all the year round.

  • 9 The total investment was 529 million JD, plus private investment of 74,1 million JD until 1986. USA (...)

18Since the 1950s, directive planning in the JV has focused on the East Ghor Canal, which runs parallel to the Jordan River and receives water from the Yarmouk River in the north. This endeavour is the largest and most important development project ever undertaken in Jordan9 and the « development of the Valley was one of the most expensive per capita development projects in the world » (Dajani, cited in Lane, 1994 : 4). The JV has been the showcase of rural modernity, held up as a model of planning for the rest of the country and the Middle East, an essential asset for attracting foreign aid and displaying the JV as the “cornerstone of national development” (R.G. Khouri, 1981).

  • 10 The principles of development were issued in 1954 by the Department of Interior of the US, and stat (...)

19More importantly, the JV development programme has been an experiment in social engineering, strongly supported after 1948 by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), the World Bank, and USAID as a refugees’ resettlement programme for Palestinians displaced in Jordan. In spite of increasing agricultural production, intense policy intervention and modernisation of the landscape, the official goal of creating a “community of owner-operators”10 as a mean to foster political stability and economic development through agricultural settlement, was never reached.

20The development transformations of the past half century have reproduced a political bias for large landowners, merchants, and investors from outside the JV residing in urban centres and have engendered new forms of inequality. Large landholdings were re-established and inequalities reinforced by the importance of capital in agricultural enterprises. Agribusiness has brought about a vertical system where the main beneficiaries of aid are the urban elite and large landowners who are able to mobilise large amounts of capital necessary to acquire new technologies, and pay for expenses, fertilizers, chemicals, or expertise. Today, even official donors criticise the sustainability the projects and recognise how far removed their outcome is from their initial technical and social targets.

  • 11 The reform was based on a land redistribution programme in 1962 that confiscated tracts of lands fo (...)

21The agrarian reform11 of 1958, following the construction of the East Ghor Canal, has transformed the pastoral economy integrated with agriculture in the side-valleys, based on barley and wheat, into a highly mechanised, chemical-dependent and market-oriented system that requires a substantial investment of capital and a new agronomic knowledge.

  • 12 Ruba’ system embraced a dishonourable relationship of dependence, in contrast to sharecropper devel (...)
  • 13 The Mashalkha tribe is often taken as synonymous with the Ghawarneh tribe, although these terms rem (...)

22Before planned intervention, several tribes were organised in patron-client relationships that determined the status hierarchy among various communities working the land. These groups were of ‘abid descent, slaves of African origin who were working land in a ruba’ system, receiving a quarter of the produce at the end of the season12. They were also labelled as Ghawarneh13 – a tribal word – or, in a more deprecatory manner, Ghorani, “natives from the Ghor”. Under today’s clan and status segmentation, Ghorani is an offensive terms, which should be avoided in public, linked to “black” social stigma and to the past condition of dependence. Hence, a major distinction was traditionally set between the tribal landowner and the worker, whose relation to his patron was one of dependency, as opposed to a hurr (free) condition. Thus, these agricultural workers were, from the beginning, considered as ‘abid, which later had an effect on the devaluation of the labourers status.

  • 14 This of course is illegal, since according to JVA policies, “foreigners” cannot rent nor be sharecr (...)

23Palestinian refugees were absorbed as landless peasants both as labourers and sharecroppers (musharek), mainly after 1971 with the extension of irrigated agriculture in the JV. The latter arrangement reflected a patron-client relationship with the owner of the land but also a flexible tie, in which part of the decision-making process was in the hands of the musharek, with regard to the type of crop to cultivate. Therefore, this status was not stigmatised and has been reproduced in flexible ways until the present day. If it has gradually disappeared with the introduction of high capital and technological input that sharecroppers could not afford, in some regions of the JV it has perpetuated, so that we find today Pakistanis and Egyptians taking the place of Palestinians as sharecroppers14.

  • 15 Employees obtain health insurance for the family, low cost mobile phones, access to low cost superm (...)

24Following the petrol boom and the increase of Palestinians migrating to the Gulf countries, not only did manpower decrease in the valley, but a process of social and economic mobility has taken place, with the new employment opportunities in local administrations, in development bureaucracy or in the army. Linked to that, the role of the employee (muwaẓẓaf) conferred a new status brought about by privileges and social network15. This has led to a consequent devaluation of agricultural labour, perceived more and more in terms of dependency relation and, with the increasing assimilation of immigrants, as a low status activity. Consequently, the presence itself of a large migrant community in agriculture has gradually led to a social stigma of this work, while the setting up of large intensive farms has reduced agricultural labour activity to mere execution and left labourers in a highly vulnerable situation.

  • 16 For two decades, the main conflicts have arisen around the distribution of water, where rigid burea (...)
  • 17 Until a couple of years ago, farmers were in legal terms only holders of units of land. The exploit (...)

25The valley has been managed by a central national agency, the Jordan Valley Authority (later JVA): it has a monopoly of resources, since it is the owner of water and organizes the distribution of this crucial resource16. The JVA has gradually introduced an underground-pressurised pipe system that has transformed the open canal system but also irrigation practices : only JVA employees can open and close the water valve according to a computerized water schedule. In addition, this agency was the only owner of land until summer 2001, and it has full legal control over agricultural management17 in terms of crop policies, crop prohibitions (as fruit trees or summer crops), of patterns of use on the units of land, but more important in the last year, through its decision to cut off irrigated water in summer and the consequent impossibility to cultivate. As a result, land and water resources have been gradually transferred into the hands of a centralised bureaucracy, while new factors like credit facilities, access to agronomic knowledge, to seeds or to marketing relations have become essential in farming and have furthered local relations of inequality. In this way, the JVA has introduced a bureaucratic and technocratic presence with financial and administrative resources, defining the role of central government in rural areas, but at the same time redefining the new role of farmer, of agricultural engineers and farm labourers.

26As we have seen earlier, although agribusiness remains the main economic activity, the farm work has increasingly been carried out since the 1970s by Egyptians and by the smaller Pakistani communities. Most importantly, local women of low-income families, mainly Ghawarneh and of Palestinian origin, have been assimilated into agribusiness as cheap labourers, in a new economic segmentation and division of labour along ethnic but also gender lines. In this changeable frame, different agricultural patterns coexist at the same time : a flexibility that has made it difficult for planners to evaluate different management patterns, which depend on various degrees of intensity of agricultural production and on the capacity to raise the necessary capital investment. The coexistence of traditional water and cultivation patterns, such as furrow irrigation, with intensive high-tech farm enterprises and drip irrigation is in fact striking.

27In the recent years, the development of the Jordan Valley is slowly reconfiguring with tourism and “environmental” projects or even industrial clusters, usurping the primacy of agribusiness, which has been shown to be economically unrewarding and requires too much precious water ; a resource, which within the new water policies is increasingly devoted to the expansion of urban centres.

28Following the entrance of Jordan into the World Trade Organization in 2000, the World Bank and USAid are applying strong pressure on the Jordanian government to end subsidies on irrigation water in order to privatise water management in agriculture : this would partly displace the bureaucracy of the Jordan Valley Authority in the context of a global trend of transforming water provision into a purchasable service. What these changes envisage is an amplification of the process of economic segmentation brought about in the last decade through agribusiness. Agriculture seems to lead to a process of corporatisation and large-scale farms, to the complete disappearance of farm-families and tenancy and the increased need for flexible wage labourers.

A migrants' sector

29Over the last thirty years, Egyptian migrants have fitted perfectly as cheap labourers into this agricultural system subject to escalating labour costs. The “intensive” cultivation helped by plastic tunnels, drip irrigation systems, plastic sheets, and greenhouses, has definitely increased the structural need for labour per unit of land and the cost of farming manpower. Whereas the market trends for exports and prices were favourable in the 1970s and early 1980s – a period remembered as the golden age of the valley –, the persistent market crisis, the decreasing exports, and the resulting overproduction and decreasing profits since the mid 1980s have made agriculture less profitable and the need for intensive manpower more burdensome. Therefore, a main strategy was to decrease the cost of labour by hiring poor migrants or local women in order to increase, or at least maintain, profits. Another consequence is that those who, today, can make a profitable business out of agriculture are those farm managers who can mobilize a market network abroad, in order to obtain higher prices, and those who have the political influence to obtain more water, or avoid cuts, in a context of increasing restrictions on the scarce resource.

  • 18 The Jordan Valley population increased from 150 000 in the 1980s to 450 000 in 2000.

30The Jordan Valley has become both an importer and an exporter of agricultural labour. The mobility of the local population following the 1970 rise in oil prices, migration from the JV to the Gulf, as well as to Germany and other Western countries have increased. Counting population in the valley, and more generally in Jordan, has remained a highly political and sensitive issue for two main reasons18. First, the significant impact of the refugees’ presence on the total Jordanian population : Palestinians have acquired Jordanian nationality but at the same time Palestinian self expression has been censured and perceived as a continuous potential threat to the loyalty to the Hashemite family. Secondly, the number of migrants, mainly Egyptians, has been unknown because of the high number of illegal migrants, which has been difficult or too sensitive to account.

  • 19 As F. De Bel-Air (2002) has remarked, this pattern of dependence goes back to the Mandate period, w (...)

31The presence of Egyptian labourers has been fostered by an open-door immigration policy towards Arab foreigners, which has encouraged the inflow of cheaper foreign manpower from Egypt in contrast to non-Arabs, who on the contrary could not enter the country without a permit. Migration policies have worked in Jordan as a political and economic stabiliser (F. De Bel-Air, 2002). They have allowed unemployment to be partly addressed offset through emigration and increasing remittances by Jordanian migrants. This “non-policy” of migration has acted as an effective political strategy, linked also to dependence on aid on which Jordan’s national stability has been built on, in a economy characterised by a rentier oil economy “without oil”19.

  • 20 37 % of foreign workers in Jordan, mostly Egyptians, were working in agriculture (M. Humphey, 1993) (...)

32The presence of Egyptian labour in the JV is also linked to a sectorialization of the economy, where agriculture, along with construction and domestic work, have constituted the main sectors in absorbing foreign migrants in Jordan, thanks to lower visa costs, open-door policies in the past for Egyptians, and lower restrictions. For example, in 1988 an Egyptian had to pay 10 JD for a visa to work in agriculture and could enter Jordan without prior request, while a visa for a non-Arab in other sectors (for example, a trader) costs thirty times more. As a result, agriculture has become the economic sector that has absorbed the highest percentage of migrant workers, while illegal immigration has been not only tolerated but also indirectly encouraged, creating a class of labourers vulnerable vis-à-vis farm managers20. Interestingly, these three labour intensive sectors have been excluded of labour regulations and have begun to be codified only lately. At the same time, foreigners have not been allowed to join trade unions, a strategy of delimiting sectors characterized by insecure and weak labour rights. Therefore, the vulnerability of labourers in the agricultural sector has increased with the absorption of a flexible migrant presence and the lack of codification of the sector : a deliberate “construction of vulnerability” that is part of their added value in local economy.

  • 21 Medicine, engineering, administration, retailing, mechanics and education were some of the major oc (...)
  • 22 The mediation and network in the country with fellow Egyptians and an informal recruitment have bec (...)

33After 1985, following the first agricultural market crisis and a rise in unemployment, talk of reducing guest workers first arose although there was no implementation. Only in the following years, as immigration started to become a sensitive issue, and Egyptians became more and more seen as “illegal migrants”, did the first inspection campaigns start along with restrictions on job mobility. The increase of visa costs and the introduction of fines for illegal entries were all measures meant to discipline an unregulated sector, thus ending the period of open-door policy. Foreign workers were banned in Jordan from specific occupations21 in 1995 and a year later, the kafîl system was introduced. This system of labour absorption linked the role of the sponsor (kafîl) with that of the employer. Work contracts became obligatory to enter the country, a factor that inevitably transformed the once easy circulation between Egypt and Jordan22.

  • 23 A labour attaché is posted at the Egyptian embassy to mediate in disputes of labour.

34Dependency and exploitation relation are greater than before : a pattern of exclusion, which is much more striking for Egyptians because of common culture, religion, and language. Tensions over ill treatment of workers arouse also in Jordan though only at the local level, while the main efforts of the Egyptian authorities have been to downplay conflicts and deal with individual cases and events23. The present economic crisis has increased the local competition between low-income Jordanians and Egyptian labourers, and ethnic definition of Egyptians as a separate community is reinforced through an opposition in national terms. A latent xenophobia is growing : if Egyptians have been instrumental in agribusiness development, they are now instrumental to a new national definition within a dichotomous representation. Under the new national policy of “Jordanian First”, the issue of migration is generally associated in public discourse with that of security and with a re-nationalisation of work and of water resources, a process that follows what has happened earlier in some Gulf countries.

The greenhouse: segmentation and socialisation

35The greenhouse in the Jordan Valley is called bayt al-plastic, “house of plastic”, similar to the traditional Bedouin bayt sha‘r, “house of goat-wool”. It has in fact been the symbol of local agribusiness since its arrival in the JV in 1968, but also a place of intense socialisation. Indoor agriculture is perceived as the opposite of open-field agriculture (makshuf) in terms of investment, productivity, and work environment. In and around the greenhouse, identities are negotiated, status is redefined and a new discipline is set up in an agricultural context. For this reason, I will focus here on this place of production as a site of dynamic social interaction, in order to show what farming has become in the valley today, and who the farmers and labourers are in representation and in practice.

  • 24 Labour expenses in greenhouses and plasticulture are 40 % to 50 % higher per unit than in open fiel (...)

36Greenhouses are development markers, symbols of development through technology transfer and intensive farming. “Intensiveness” is actually the notion that characterizes these places of production. Intensive agriculture has increased the production yield over the last decades, it has allowed earlier harvesting but has also raised enormously the costs of farming. Greenhouses are labour-intensive and require continuous care of fast-growing plants and, most of all, a large number of seasonal labourers, especially during the harvest period. Thus, labour has become an essential part of farming, and cheap wage labour has therefore been represented, over the past twenty years, as the only way to reduce the high cost of farming when faced with a decline of the market-oriented agriculture and decreasing profits24.

37Greenhouse cultivation is capital-intensive. It requires a high input because it is 6 to 8 times more costly per unit of land than open field cultivation (Qasem, 1995 : 19). Superior hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers, intensive pest control due to the increased livelihood of plant diseases in the humid environment are in fact the main causes for the high capital input. In addition to the initial investment for setting up greenhouses, the irrigation layout, in terms of the drip-irrigation infrastructure, plastic pipes, plastic mulch and plastic sheets and their yearly maintenance, constitute a very expensive capital input at the beginning of every season.

38Far from being only incidental to, or a minor presence in, contemporary changes of the JV, Egyptian labour has in fact been vital to the transformation of the region. As a source of docile manpower, they have been in fact determinant in the technological investment that requires high labour intensity and a reduction of wage costs. Moreover, Egyptians are intimately associated with greenhouses because they have successfully adapted to this new environment, not only in economic but also in social terms. They live on the site, at the farm, while most farm managers live far from the place of production. Therefore, they control and watch over the high capital investment present at farms. At the same time, they live for free on the products of the farm (cucumber, tomatoes, aubergine, beans, onions, potatoes), they do not have to pay rent for accommodation (often huts in the farm), saving money and buying only bread and hummus from time to time. Isolated in farm areas, far away from social activities, coffee shops or markets, they spend less and save more money – as part of their plan to accumulate capital during migration.

39For these reasons, they are preferred to Jordanian labour who will rarely live on the farm and will not accept low wages and dependent work relations. Some farm owners often complain about Jordanian labour because they work less than Egyptians and are more expensive due to the wage differentials between Jordanians and foreigners. Besides, they are not always available, they often ask for leave for marriages, visits, or for other ritual events that are crucial to the community building in the valley.

40On the contrary, Egyptians, isolated from their social milieu, are always available, their productivity is deemed higher, and they adapt to the changing schedules on the farm such as irrigating at night, working in heavy and hot conditions for many hours and also on Fridays. Ten hours a day, seven days per week, the rhythm of the day is defined by work, and there are “no holidays” as it is often stated. It is acknowledged that Egyptians work better than others, demand less and complain less than Jordanian workers for flexible and extra hours. A young female labourer, working for a Turkish merchant commuting to the Jordan Valley, comments :

« Their salary is at most 120-130 JD a month, they have a pause at 9 am for breakfast, one at 1 pm for a meal, they work everyday, even on Friday, with only a pause for the Friday prayer. Nobody works like them. We earn more than them and we do not work in the sun, we work in the shade preparing boxes of vegetables that are sold abroad ».

41Plastic, in the form of new and old pipes, mulch, plastic rolls and drip tubes, has become constitutive of the local material culture and a symbol of the scenery of the farms. Even the huts on the farm where Egyptian labourers often live, are often fabricated out of the remains of old plastic of greenhouses.

  • 25 Temperatures may reach in the long summer from May to September up to 40-45 degrees inside greenhou (...)

42Going inside greenhouses is like entering a delimited social place, defined by the low status of wage labourers. This new ecological and productive unit exemplifies how rural modernisation has transformed the values of agricultural work. The environment is characterised by the oppressive heat25, hard working conditions, and relations of dependency. Entering a greenhouse is not a neutral act for two reasons : first, it is perceived as a shameful (arâm) environment, because of the mixed-gender presence since most of the women working in greenhouses at seasonal activities are young, unmarried Jordanian girls between 15 and 19. Secondly, only wage labourers work in greenhouses, a farming activity associated with a low and nowadays stigmatised social status. Those who work ‘al-âjâr, wage labour or, literally, “hired” labour, are perceived as people who lack autonomy and reputation, in contrast to those who enjoy free and independent (urr) conditions. But while other wage labour activities, such as mechanics, car washing, construction or painting, are accepted by local shabâb of poor families, the farm has developed a social stigma due to the Egyptian presence, while some on farm activities have become women’s task.

  • 26 Ten dunums correspond to one hectare.

43Wage labour in greenhouses is in fact an activity increasingly identified with “Egyptians” on an ethnic definition of work. In fact in local knowledge, there is a steady proportion of Egyptians required : one Egyptian labourer for every four greenhouses, or four for every 30 dunums26 of outdoor cultivation. This agricultural work falls within a new regime of value : ethnic, gender, and class demarcations are so reinterpreted and overlapping in terms of new criteria linked to the organisation of labour.

  • 27 61 % of the units in 1994 (Qasem, 1995).

44In short, greenhouse cultivation illustrates well the contradictory reality of the consequences of development. In contrast to the ideal target of the project – a single owner and his family working on a unit of land as the base for social stability and sustainability of the development endeavour – 68 % of Jordanian men engaged in farm management in the JV are landless lessees (Qasem, 1995). The proportion is even higher (81 %) in the central region of the JV, on which this research is based. In addition, this group of lessees manages the majority of the units of land27, they are the main investors in agricultural technology and have built most greenhouses. This aspect shows the unstable nature of tenancy of rented land, which is generally leased in three or five-year contracts and does not allow sustainable and long-term investment but instead encourages over-exploitation for short-term gain of the units. The value is not focused on land itself but on the capital that can be invested in some units of land in the form of intermediate technology. The phenomenon of lessees moving every three or five years with their “farm capital” to new rented units of land due to overexploitation, salinisation of the soil, or lack of availability of water for example, reveals the changes in the meanings of land where agriculture has become a business like any other.

Who is the muzare‘?

45Although generally represented by development actors as one homogenous community, the social groups that live in the valley unveil different images and practices at work in agriculture that contradict the exogenous, apparently neutral and homogenous label of “Jordanian farmer community”, on which the development programs were based. But who is then the farmer in today’s agribusiness, from a local perspective ? A Palestinian owner of 20 greenhouses on rented land where eleven Egyptian labourers work on a fixed basis, tried to define what a muzare‘, was :

« The muzare‘ is the one who decides, for example, the seeds to use and the one who knows the best fertiliser. Every year there are many new products. The muzare‘ knows and decides which product to use. For example, he tests one of them in a greenhouse to see how it goes. He is the one with the knowledge and who makes the decisions. He is not the engineer, nor the landowner, who often does not live in the Ghor, he is near to the market and to the land. The muzare‘ is in charge of managing the work of the farm and often is not the owner of the land. A sharecropper is not a muzare‘ because he does not decide. Muzare‘, in short, is the one who makes the decisions in the bait-al-plastic ».

46The stress here is on autonomous decision-making and on the greenhouse as a productive site, but, more importantly, on the symbolic place of this control of management. What makes up a farmer’s identity and role is the availability of capital rather than land, management rather than the execution of farming work, the knowledge of chemicals, fertilisers, and of the market network, which confer the authority of decision-making. In this context, the landowner often does not live in the JV, does not work and manage the land, but rather hires managers, supervisors, engineers, and labourers or lets the land to lessees. Thus, different roles and functions are present on the same unit of land, based on the division between the execution of agricultural work and the supervision of the farm.

47In fact, “farmer” (muzare‘) today refers to an occupational category linked to market connections, chemical knowledge, or knowing how to cheat in packaging vegetables. This identity category widely differs from the traditional peasant (fellaḥin)’s notion of belonging, which here stands for an identity and community expression linked to a lost village on the West Bank for Palestinians or to a highland village on the east bank for Jordanians.

48Being a farmer also entails the management and control of labour :

« The labourers change nearly every year! Sometimes, some are not nice, don’ t work, I don’t renew their visa. Other times, they want to leave for other places in Jordan or they go back return home. I am preparing now the paper for the visa ; often they are friends of village or of parents of those who are already here. They earn between 105/130 JD a month : the pay varies depending on they are young or old, whether they work well or for example, whether they are responsible of fertilisers, chemicals or water on the farm. You have to prepare the papers now (i.e. May) in order to have the labourers for September when the season starts » (A farm-manager and kafîl).

49Indeed, visa applications and the circuits of labourers from Egypt have become integrally part of farming activities and the control and organisation of labour combine to define what a muzare‘ stands for today. Being a farmer also means being involved in administrative procedures, such as request for “turns” of irrigation water at the local pumping station, dealing with engineers and agronomic and hydraulic experts, or handling the continuous observation of planners and aid consultants.

Gender values of agricultural work and mobility

« The whole world is here, the whole Muslim and Arab world is here in the valley for work! »

50The new, albeit minor presence of female Syrian labourers or Bangladeshi men side by side with Pakistani families and Egyptian men, is at the heart of this comment of a female labourer. It reflects the reality of flexible labour with a high turnover, where women play a crucial role. In the history of planning of the JV since the 1950s, the conjugal family has become the new development actor, « considered as the group of relatives living under the same roof and sharing the same kitchen » (Dar Al Handasah, 1969 : 34). Resources were given to this target unit, an autonomous, efficient “hard-working family” (World Bank, 1957). In short, until the late 1980s, the JV development programme portrayed women as implicitly productive only within concept of the “family farm” or of the “farm-operator”, a neutral category with an implicit male reference. Women were thus integrated into the “family farm” as essential labour providers. The idea of development was based on an ideal farm family settled on one unit of land, a target that was never reached. Instead, women have been integrated into agriculture but as flexible labourers. This implicit idea of conjugal family appeared to be very different from the local conceptions and practices, where the nuclear family is intimately connected with the network of the extended family at the productive level, even more so in the context of marginalized social groups.

51Moreover, as we mentioned earlier, Jordanian agricultural male wage labour has nearly disappeared in the last decades. Men seek employment outside the agricultural sector, although control and responsibility in agriculture remain symbolically male business. In the process of feminisation of agriculture (Shami, 1990), management of labour and of chemicals, irrigation process and marketing have definitely remained the responsibility of men, activities which represent the control of the farm work.

52While on one hand the profitability of agriculture has decreased in the last decades along with its attractiveness, the new segmentation of work in agribusiness has also led to a decrease in the social value of some agricultural activities. Tasks that only a few decades ago were performed by men are now performed by women. The main activities performed by women today are planting, weeding, harvesting and packaging, activities that are now considered feminine, and therefore inferior to or incompatible with masculine values.

  • 28 Besides, nearly 58 % of women female labourers are under 25 years old and 62,7 % are unmarried (GTZ (...)
  • 29 A major problem in the current high indebtedness of many farmers and low market prices, are the pay (...)

53In the early morning hours, the valley is brought up to life by tens of pickups and trucks delivering female labourers to fields that may be between 10 and 20 km away from their houses : cheap labourers, generally unmarried girls, sometimes divorced or widowed, but increasingly married women from low-income families. Recruitment is informal, not registered and therefore it is not statistically visible. It is based on networking by the oldest female labourers who mediate to find the amount of women needed for the coming days. The frequently heard comment : « they are all looking for us today, then we’ll sit (ga‘din) for three months ! », illustrates the flexible and insecure reality of season labourers. Indeed, some girls, generally unmarried28, may work up to 18 hours a day during weeks, for an average price of 500-600 fils per hour, yet they may not be able to find a day of work between May and October29.

  • 30 A presence that has increased since 2001, following the expulsion of Egyptian clandestine labourers (...)

54Prior to the JV development project, at a time of limited production, agricultural workers dependant on tribal landowners stood traditionally at the bottom of the hierarchy. With the introduction of wages, intensive labour has become widespread but has acquired new connotations in relation to the twin phenomena of feminisation and assimilation of the foreign migrants in agricultural work. Wage condition is therefore avoided in the new social and moral segmentation since this status is seen as dishonourable. Invisible in statistics, female labourers share the greenhouses with Egyptian men : a mixing of genders that has done as much to create the negative perception of these agricultural environments as the agricultural work itself. Notwithstanding the fact that women’s earnings from farming are often crucial for the income of poor households amidst high male unemployment, it also represents a new burden to add to the domestic workload. However, women’s contribution to the household is not only indispensable in terms of cash income, but it provides, also basic food for the family, as women bring home vegetables from the farms, a common but unofficial practice. Ironically, in the last ten years, the employment of women in the flexible agribusiness sector has been increasingly depicted as a positive process of their incorporation into the national economy and therefore as synonymous with emancipation (GTZ, 1997). But this modernisation discourse hides the reality of the exploitation of female labourers, their precarious status of women labourers and the relation of inequality on which this integration is embedded30. The invisibility of female labourers is yet more striking if we recall that women compose 80 % of Jordanian labour in the valley (GTZ, 1997), in a programme that, since its inception, was intended to target a masculine and national “farmer operator”.

Men’s business

55The main consequence of this change in the regimes of values of work has been to redefine gender roles in the workplace. Working in a greenhouse is perceived as shameful for Jordanian men, while it is acceptable for women reputed to be of low status. In practice, while even young men of low-income families will not work on farms because they do not perceive it as work, their sisters will and they will contribute financially to the household income.

56This social stigma is linked to the meanings attached to female work vis-à-vis male work and to the household’s reputation. What is at stake here is the role of honour protection in the gender mixed context of the farms. The fact of working in a farm is a public statement of the low status of the household itself, since higher status families will not allow their women to endanger their honour and visibility. Therefore, women may often assert that their are not “working”, in the sense that they do not have a steady employment (shul) but also in order to hide their low-status labour condition.

57The ideology of male provider and woman “nurturer” plays an important role here, despite women’s increasing employment in agriculture and their crucial role in the income of poor families. Most importantly, this actual integration of women into the market is perceived locally as tied to the family’s subsistence, while male labour is associated to the social mobility of the family. The image of the male as the only breadwinner in the household has been reproduced : men search for mobility in terms of integration into a wider market outside agriculture, while women remain tied to farm labour and to attempts to diffuse economic risk through household’s labour resources.

58Indeed, the flexible involvement of the household in multiple sectors is a key strategy to diffuse economic risks and to gain at least a precarious autonomy and some room of manoeuvre. The allocation of labour resources is in fact a crucial strategy in order to preserve labour force within the family for low-income households. This existence is highly vulnerable compared to state employment, which remains the most desired position. As an Egyptian labourer stated : » the Jordanians do not want to work in agriculture ; they just want a desk and a secure place of employee (muwaẓẓaf), bass ! »

Other patterns of work

59In this context, men’s purpose is to move across the vertical network of bureaucracies and administrations, while women are crucial in maintaining and reproducing the subsistence of the family. Diffusing risks and responsibilities through a multiple economy is crucial for marginalized communities and the meanings of work can be understood only within the frame of the household. Investing in out-farm economy in order to avoid depending only on insecure agricultural labour work is a crucial aspect of local coping strategies.

  • 31 On the role, the definition and dynamics of the extended family in the valley today, see Van Aken ( (...)

60Therefore, the values of work cannot be understood outside the emotional group of the extended family and the pattern of mutual aid and cooperation, in which women play a major role through their social network31. In this social network, symbolic resources, such as a feeling of identity and community, but also goods and services, information and employment opportunities circulate, and become a strategic asset in facing poverty. Moreover, other “work” patterns are present and influence both agricultural management and local ideas of work. Worktime exchange, such as the mutual replacement of work days or hours, are frequent in household activities and still important in farming work. For sharecroppers or family farms, it is important to reduce labour expenses as much as possible, since they constitute today one of the greatest expenses in agriculture.

61Generally, time can be exchanged, in house building, domestic repairs, or agricultural harvesting or planting. This is expressed in terms of khidma (service) or musâ‘adat (help) : a form of co-operation extended to the family network but also to acquaintances such as neighbours and fellows who are absorbed in the kinship idiom of solidarity. Indeed, labour can be mobilised to help in a whole range of different activities that are distinct from wage labour, since they exclude monetary transactions and are based on local community solidarity. In contrast to the impersonal and vulnerable wage labour relation, these frequent patterns of work reinforce community ties and allow the families to maintain a certain flexibility in the face of an unstable market.

62The sphere of assistance within the household network is often minimized or ignored in development literature, since it falls outside the formal market economy and cash exchange with its rigid indicators, its obsessive need to quantify what often cannot be translated into numbers. Indeed, the goods and services that circulate in this way generally deal with the daily sustenance of the family, such as crops or water. Such networks provide not only basic resources mobilised but also goods and services that have become less accessible to many poorer households, such as health and education. To borrow Gosh’s words in a study on a Delta village in Egypt : « the categorisation of work has nothing to do with the nature of the work » (Gosh, 1987, 133). The relationships that are entailed in the work, as we mentioned in the case of greenhouses, denote the value of the work : dependency, vulnerability, lack of autonomy, the dishonourable environment due to the mixing of genders, all define the social status of this work.

63At the same time, local patterns of fellowship at work cannot be idealised and they entail a hierarchy to a certain degree. Patron-client relationships have overlapped with agribusiness and the border between the network of assistance and the relations of dependency is often vague and ambiguous in practice. But the resilience of other patterns of working together is not only a strategic asset for marginalized families or for migrant labourers. It reproduces a sense of community in an insecure environment, and strengthens the web of relations that intimately are a part of belonging as Palestinians or in terms of kinship group, out of an abstract and depoliticising category of “farmer communities”.

Becoming a man as migrant

  • 32 Mobility is necessary to fill the summer months when agriculture in the valley slows down, and has (...)

64The local embeddedness of Egyptians in the valley has to be looked upon in the wider context of migration in the Middle East. While Egyptians have taken devaluated jobs as cheap farm labourers, they have allowed many Jordanians to leave the valley in a process of economic and social mobility. Spatial mobility has thus become associated with social status and a hierarchy of places was created, where access to visas and social network in other places is a major asset. Even for Egyptians, other countries (such as Libya, Iraq, Saudi, Arabia, Kuwait, etc…) represent various opportunities, status, higher salaries, various degrees of difficulties to obtain visas, and multiple patterns of mobility. « You take the work where you can find it », an Egyptian labourer says, to illustrate their high mobility even within the Jordan Valley and Jordan32.

65Migrants are not just the passive victims of labour policies or labour market ; instead migration in the JV is a choice based on status, on the values they attach to the experience of being away from home (bi-l-ghurba) and to their project of accumulating a capital as migrants. In fact, the hardship of migration from the point of view of local actors is intimately linked to their life cycle. Migration in the JV is tied to marriage or to a more general change of status back home. “Going outside” to work is related to ritual performances back home, as engagement or marriage, and to the social recognition of a new social position.

66Migration in the valley is perceived by Egyptians as a liminal state that has become necessary as a transformative process, as a way of getting out of one’s own environment and coming back home with a new status. The liminality of the working period in the JV is characterised by a temporary and short-term presence, frugality of living, masculine environment and daily companionship with fellow Egyptians, often from the same village, who live together on the farms, spatial segregation, relations of dependency that undermines one’s self-esteem and lastly, the harsh environment. Egyptian labourers are subject to both crude market mechanisms and patron-client relationships, which are frequent in the valley ; in this case, the relationship is one of dependency and paternalism in an ambiguous mixture of local integration and exclusion.

  • 33 The link between emigration and marriage is also explicit in Nada’s work : “In Bani Wallum village (...)
  • 34 A good average is reputed to be 100 JD send every 2 or 3 months back home, a capacity to spare arou (...)

67Men migrate in order to marry or in an attempt to construct a space of autonomy from their own parents by building a new house or adding new rooms to an existing house and so to establish an autonomous household33. Rotational migration may become necessary if only to pay the household expenses back home, the “maṣrûf al-‘ayla”34. It is often the essential enterprise in order to pay gold and mahr, or as often happens in lower Egypt, as a way to marry “in a suitable way”, in other words, to bring social mobility.

68The hardship of migration and of work relations is thus interpreted by migrants as one of the necessary steps in becoming a man, in being able to endure difficult circumstances and the vulnerable condition of international labour migration. These are part of the hardships that a man should face, to strengthen his sense of autonomy and honour. Indeed, the transition period “outside” is characterised by an inversion of status when confronted to daily experience, of lack of autonomy, dependency and vulnerability. Furthermore, during their stay in the JV, their own sense of pride and masculinity, in terms of autonomy and strength, is challenged by the local relations at work. The vulnerability affecting Egyptians, their participation in cooking, cleaning and washing, gives men an ambiguous role by inverting gender roles. This transformative period is evident also in the stigmatised tasks performed by Egyptians in greenhouses, considered as “polluted” job and place, due to their dependant status and the presence of local female labourers. Indeed, Egyptians are feminised in an inversion of roles and values that stand in stark contrast to the self esteem and autonomy of fellaḥin (peasants) back home.

69Thus, the transition period of work abroad is first of all framed as a temporal experience, as a temporary period of initiation bringing transformation and risks. Linked to that, migration is not counted in years and often it is not perceived as a delimited project in temporal terms :

« Those who come here do not have work over there or do not have enough money. We come here for 4 or 5 years, lets say 2 or 3 times according to our needs. You go, come back or leave again. With the money we try to build a house, marry or to start up a new enterprise. »

70Rather than in years, migration is perceived and expressed in terms of the number of “times” (marrât) one has gone “outside”. Each “time” thus corresponds to a defined project and transition of status : getting married, building a new house after marriage, or obtaining the money to help the children get married. The length of stay depends on the kind of work found, the type of contract, the capacity to save money. The only certainty is the amount of money needed in order to achieve a specific project. Only with this perspective, can we understand the meanings that are attributed to the difficult labour condition in the valley by Egyptians, different “regimes of value” that overlap in an heterogeneous and transnational context.


« I do not have Jordanians friends. We stay here and they stay there. There are no problems, I just see them when they come here to ask for oranges and then I don’t see them until the next season ! I remain a stranger here (bidhall gharîb) ! »
(Munir, worker in an orchard)

71Cheap labour and “remaining strangers” after years of work and life in the JV go side by side and express the overlapping of ethnic and national definitions with class segmentation. The causes of inequality, which are transversal to different social groups in the valley, have been obscured through a technical paradigm of modernisation and by a national idiom. The label of “Jordanian farmer” has provided the opportunity to avoid any understanding of the increasing agribusiness hierarchy and of the current relations of exploitation among so-called farmers in the valley, relations that are both transnational and based on gender.

72The feeling of remaining “strangers” is paralleled by the high integration in the local labour market : but the sense of common Arabness makes it more difficult and frustrating to accept the tensions existing on the work place. In fact, the question of class segmentation is reduced to a national divide, to issues of security and Jordanisation of manpower. Social issues are neutralised within technical discourses of productivity and market problems, efficient water management or general “poverty” ; but the meanings of work today in agribusiness cannot be dissociated from the social values acquired in this heterogeneous context and within the relations of inequality that agribusiness has engendered. Working relationships are embedded in local cultural interpretations and in the resulting social boundaries.

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1 We refer to Pakistani in terms of “communities” since the different groups coming from Baluchistan and Punjab have often maintained strong social borders in Jordan and do not perceive themselves as one community.

2 The fieldwork was conducted from 1999 to 2000 and for several months between 2001-2003 in the Deir Alla region. In order to reproduce the different Palestinian, Bedouin and Egyptians dialects spoken in the Jordan Valley, I have used a simplified form of transliteration.

3 The Mafraq region, in northern Jordan near the Syrian border, has been highly interdependent with the Jordan Valley in terms of labour mobility : when the agricultural season slows down in the valley, Egyptians as well as low income Jordanian female labourers find work for three to four weeks in the irrigated upland farms.

4 The case of Syrian women is yet a new and minor phenomenon in the JV compared to the overwhelming presence of Egyptians.

5 Jordanians also include Palestinians who have acquired the Jordanian nationality.

6 Pakistanis were displaced by ethnic violence from the Punjab and Baluchistan regions, and remain “apart”; even after three generations in Jordan they remain “others”, vulnerable, in that they have to renew their residence permit and are under the continuous threat of having their visas withdrawn. They have mainly settled as sharecroppers and more recently as land lessees, while the women are hired as cheap labourers in agriculture.

7 Irrigated areas constitute 70 % of cultivable land in Jordan (Aydin, 1990), the rest being rainfed. If agriculture has become a small sector in economic and employment terms, agribusiness, including its inputs, products, services, marketing, and processing, represents 29 % of GDP (UN, 1997). Because of market constraints and overproduction, agricultural exports cover only 30 % of the country’s agricultural imports (Maqtash, 1998).

8 The JV is characterised by low and irregular precipitation (from 100 mm. in the south to 360 mm. in the north) and high evapo-transpiration.

9 The total investment was 529 million JD, plus private investment of 74,1 million JD until 1986. USAID contributed 45 % of the total public investment, while 14 other donors invested in what has been presented as one of the main development successes in the Middle East (Tech International, 1988).

10 The principles of development were issued in 1954 by the Department of Interior of the US, and stated : “the objective of the organization should be to create as rapidly as possible a community of owner-operators” (Spencer, 1954 : 54).

11 The reform was based on a land redistribution programme in 1962 that confiscated tracts of lands following compensation. Large landowners redistributed units of land among family members or among the managers in charge, in order to reduce the risk of land expropriation. In fact, the land redistribution law, due to its loopholes and local manipulation, did not prevent the circulation of land within the pre-reform families of landowners.

12 Ruba’ system embraced a dishonourable relationship of dependence, in contrast to sharecropper developed after the 1970s, where the tenant enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy and also a bigger share of the products, generally half of the agricultural output.

13 The Mashalkha tribe is often taken as synonymous with the Ghawarneh tribe, although these terms remain a contested issues for some lineages : in recent decades, some families have detached themselves from this genealogical linkage and began to represent themselves as separate tribal units.

14 This of course is illegal, since according to JVA policies, “foreigners” cannot rent nor be sharecroppers of units of land.

15 Employees obtain health insurance for the family, low cost mobile phones, access to low cost supermarket, as well as mediation within the bureaucracy.

16 For two decades, the main conflicts have arisen around the distribution of water, where rigid bureaucratic rules contrast with flexible needs and where social status and political power become the crucial assets to mobilize additional access to water or to hide the stealing of water.

17 Until a couple of years ago, farmers were in legal terms only holders of units of land. The exploitation of land units is hereditary, but until summer 2001, no sale of land was allowed : after a decade of international pressure, the Jordan Valley Law has been amended in order to allow the buying and selling of land . In the current market crisis, many small owners are interested only in selling. According to local perceptions, nobody is eager to buy land units since agriculture is viewed as a risky and costly investment. This may benefit intensive agribusiness in the JV, increasing the role of large and foreign investors or opening the way for large-scale contract farming.

18 The Jordan Valley population increased from 150 000 in the 1980s to 450 000 in 2000.

19 As F. De Bel-Air (2002) has remarked, this pattern of dependence goes back to the Mandate period, when it was increased by British development policies, and replaced after 1957 by increasing US aid, as in the case of the valley project implementation, and by Gulf states’ aid, which made of Jordan a “rentier” state.

20 37 % of foreign workers in Jordan, mostly Egyptians, were working in agriculture (M. Humphey, 1993).

21 Medicine, engineering, administration, retailing, mechanics and education were some of the major occupations that were forbidden to migrants.

22 The mediation and network in the country with fellow Egyptians and an informal recruitment have become therefore instrumental in obtaining the entry permit.

23 A labour attaché is posted at the Egyptian embassy to mediate in disputes of labour.

24 Labour expenses in greenhouses and plasticulture are 40 % to 50 % higher per unit than in open fields (Steitieh, 1980). As early as 1980, 97 % of workers in greenhouses were non-Jordanian, a figure that highlights the status demarcation of these places of production.

25 Temperatures may reach in the long summer from May to September up to 40-45 degrees inside greenhouses, in a highly humid environment.

26 Ten dunums correspond to one hectare.

27 61 % of the units in 1994 (Qasem, 1995).

28 Besides, nearly 58 % of women female labourers are under 25 years old and 62,7 % are unmarried (GTZ, 1997).

29 A major problem in the current high indebtedness of many farmers and low market prices, are the payments, which are often delayed. Cases of labour going unpaid are not rare, and female labourers try to select the work opportunities according to the respectability and the knowledge of the employer.

30 A presence that has increased since 2001, following the expulsion of Egyptian clandestine labourers and the consequent lack of labourers on the market.

31 On the role, the definition and dynamics of the extended family in the valley today, see Van Aken (2003).

32 Mobility is necessary to fill the summer months when agriculture in the valley slows down, and has been even more so during the droughts and water restrictions over the last five years.

33 The link between emigration and marriage is also explicit in Nada’s work : “In Bani Wallum village international migration has become expected behaviour for any village male who intends to get married” (Nada, 1981 : 66). Even Saad reports how Egyptians perceive migration as a transformative period in order to “establish” themselves (Saad, 2002 : 6).

34 A good average is reputed to be 100 JD send every 2 or 3 months back home, a capacity to spare around 30 JD every month for the house expenses.

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Mauro Van Aken, « Values at work: a case of labourers in agribusiness (Jordan) », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 105-106 | janvier 2005, mis en ligne le 12 janvier 2012, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Mauro Van Aken

Anthropologue, Université de Milan-Bicocca (Italie)

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