Factory keeps Jordan's women in work as coronavirus hits

AMMAN, March 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Government measures to stop the coronavirus spreading are keeping most of Jordan’s workers at home, but 40 women making crucial protective wear for medics under a pioneering initiative are the exception.

Despite a strict countrywide lockdown, the mostly female workers at the Norseen garment factory in northern Jordan have been given special dispensation to go to work making masks and sterile suits under contract to the government.

Although women account for more than half all college enrollments in Jordan, less than one in five women is in paid work, due largely to sexist attitudes and limited access to affordable childcare and transport.

Yet they make up about 95% of staff at the Norseen Factory, which was set up in early 2019 as part of a government initiative to bring work to low-income areas.

The factory, which usually makes protective gear for export, provides door-to-door bus transport for all the women, which has allowed employee Mariam to provide for her four children.

“My husband’s income wasn’t enough to cover our son’s studies, so I decided to help him with household finances,” said Mariam, 38, who asked to be identified only by her first name due to the taboo about women working.

“There’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to help her husband.”

Nonetheless, Mariam said her retired husband was nervous about her leaving the house during the outbreak.

“Every day before I come home my husband tells me to be careful and sanitize well.

“At the factory we no longer use the fingerprint scanners, we keep our distance and the machines are properly cleaned.”

The coronavirus measures have only made it more difficult for women to work outside the home, said Mayyada Abu Jaber, founder of JoWomenomics, an employment empowerment program that places women like Mariam in rural factory jobs.

“Those who are working are scared because of the virus and those who are not working are scared about their jobs,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With all but essential workers in Jordan now barred from leaving home except to buy food or medicine, Abu Jaber’s team is holding online mentoring sessions and leading WhatsApp group discussions to keep her trainees motivated.

Mariam originally planned to resign after she had saved enough to put her eldest through school, but the training and the work encouraged her to keep going, she said.

But Abu Jaber worries that many women like her could lose their jobs if the curfew continues and factories are no longer able to pay them.

“We’re worried they’ll stay at home, we want to make sure they go back,” she said. “We’re doing everything virtually while everyone is living in uncertainty.”