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8 May 2016

Annabel Short, Deputy Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

A critical juncture: Syrian refugees and migrant workers in Jordan

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While global headlines spotlight the refugee crisis in Europe, Syria’s neighboring country Jordan is working to integrate at least 630,000 Syrian refugees into its total overall population of 9.5 million.

Eager to stem the movement of refugees into European countries, EU governments have committed to invest in Jordan to stimulate job-creation.  An arrangement known as the “Jordan Compact” will open up trade opportunities with the EU.  Following on from this, in March the World Bank offered $100 million in financing to create new jobs for both Jordanians and Syrian refugees. 

On Jordan’s side, it has said it will create 200,000 jobs for Syrian refugees – provided foreign governments come through with the necessary investment.   The government also recently announced measures to ease Syrians’ entry into the workplace.

There are still many important unanswered questions:

  • Will all the promised investment for jobs from governments come through, and into what industries?
  • What kind of jobs will be created?  Decent jobs with a living wage, or temporary, poorly-paid exploitative work limited to sectors that others shun?
  • How will initiatives to create employment for Syrian refugees also take into account the needs of the Jordanian workforce (with a current unemployment rate of 14%), and of the significant existing migrant worker populations in Jordan?  Currently 70% of Jordan’s agricultural workers are Egyptian for example, as are many in the service sector.
  • Will these jobs help to keep Syrian children out of the workplace?  Many are now working in hazardous conditions to earn income for their families - UNICEF estimates that one in ten Syrian refugees in the region is engaged in child labour.

Working conditions in the industries that many Syrian refugees in Jordan will enter leave much to be desired.  At a recent workshop that we co-hosted in Amman, civil society and government representatives discussed widespread labour abuses in the country’s construction and agriculture sectors, as well as the Qualified Economic Zones manufacturing garments for global export.   The workshop, organized by Tamkeen Fields for Aid, UNODC, and us at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre brought together 30 participants from civil society, and Jordanian and foreign governments.

Construction work can be hazardous – both in the work on construction sites themselves and in the quarries as journalist Ezzedine Al Natour has documented.  The industry is also notorious for multiple layers of subcontracting, which makes it particularly difficult to hold employers accountable for labour abuses.

An Egyptian quarry worker in Jordan - from an article by Ezzedine Al Natour, 7iber

The Qualified Economic Zones employ thousands of workers, largely women from Asian countries.  While the ILO’s Better Work Jordan initiative has driven improvements in working conditions in these areas, problems such as non-payment of wages, sexual harassment, retention of passports, excessive working hours and poor accommodation persist in the zones.  Salary levels are usually below the national minimum wage.  The World Bank’s job-creation program includes plans to expand these zones.  It will be essential not to repeat the mistakes of the existing ones, to ensure that workers - and their families - can enjoy a decent standards of living.

The need for a long-term, inclusive, human rights approach

As with previous waves of refugees from Palestine and Iraq, as well as Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, many of the Syrians who are now in Jordan are there to stay.  A common perception is that the Syrian refugees are mostly in Jordan’s five refugee camps near the border, but in fact 80% now live in villages, towns and cities throughout the country.  Short-term relief efforts have to be accompanied by a long-term economic strategy. 

The international investment attention is welcome but this has to be accompanied by transparency around the decisions that are being made.  There must also be thorough consultation and input from local and international civil society groups who work on labour rights. 

In a recent interview the UNHCR’s manager of Zaatari, Jordan’s largest refugee camp, emphasized the importance of securing work permits for Syrian refugees, and added: “We’re at the start of this discussion and it will take time until everyone is clear as to how the regulatory framework will work, how the refugees are going to be working, and what format we’re going to use, but there’s a positive momentum.”

We are faced with a major opportunity for business investing in Jordan to make a difference in the lives of Syrian refugees, Jordanian workers, and migrant workers from other countries.  To realize this opportunity, all stakeholders must work openly and constructively together: business, international institutions, government, and civil society.

A Syrian child learns at one of UNICEF's many "Makani" centres working to provide access to education throughout Jordan.  Decent work for adults will play an important role in keeping children out of the workplace.

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