Syrian Refugees: Should they Work?

With no quick end in sight for the Syrian conflict, pressure is growing on Jordan to allow refugees greater access to its job market. But such a move is likely to be fraught with social and economic complications.

By Elisa Oddone

Khaled, a 20-year-old Syrian refugee, has just returned home from a grueling 14-hour shift working in a cafe in Zarqa. He pocketed his JD7 daily wage and is looking forward to spending the evening relaxing with his family, who is drinking tea and sitting on the cushions that line the walls of the modest apartment in Zarqa, north-west of Amman.

Khaled (not his real name) told Venture he fled to Jordan three years ago with his parents, brother, and two sisters. Another sibling remained in Syria to fight alongside rebels against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the rural outskirts of Damascus.

Upon reaching Jordan, Khaled and his family spent a period of time moving in and out of the Zataari refugee camp, before finally deciding to settle in Zarqa. Since they illegally fled the camp, they would be sent back immediately if found by government officials.

Khaled is his family’s sole breadwinner, but he doesn’t have a work permit. He was caught working illegally in a restaurant by labor inspectors earlier this year and was promptly returned to Zaatari. But this didn’t discourage him from trying to find informal work again. “They sent me back to the camp. During one of the leaves [from Zaatari], I just decided not to go back and find a new job,” he said.

Most agree the Syrian conflict won’t be ending any time soon. So with donor fatigue inevitably beginning to settle in, pressure is mounting on the Jordanian government to find new ways to mitigate the ongoing impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on Jordan. Relief agencies are encouraging the Kingdom to consider granting refugees like Khaled the right to work in a greater number of industries.

“Refugees are not going away anytime soon, not in months … We are facing an unprecedented level of displacement and increasing poverty and despair,” Andrew Harper, UNHCR representative to Jordan, said during May’s World Economic Forum. “We should look at the people who are working in the informal sector and have them become part of the formal sector … We have to make sure that the people who are in Jordan can actually contribute to the local economy, without competing with Jordanians, and use their skills, thus supporting their families, the hosting community, and maintaining their dignity.”

Abiding by the Law

Maha Kataa, who coordinates the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Syrian refugee response in Jordan, said refugees are currently permitted to work in the construction and agricultural sectors, provided they obtain a work permit from the Ministry of Labor and pass a Ministry of Interior security check.

According to government figures, 1.4 million Syrians currently live in Jordan, half of whom are registered with the UN’s refugee agency. Some 80 percent of the refugees live within Jordanian cities instead of the country’s camps.

Although accurate numbers are difficult to estimate, a study from the ILO showed that around 160,000 Syrians are employed in Jordan, as a mix of registered refugees who entered the labor market without permits and workers who were already present in the country before the inception of the Syrian conflict.

Despite having the highest ratio of refugees to citizens in the world, the Kingdom hasn’t ratified the 1951 UN Convention, which states, among other rights, the refugees’ right to engage in wage-earning employment and self-employment.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s Labor Law, which defines the rights, protections, and responsibilities for all workers and employers except those in the domestic and agricultural sectors, doesn’t make any references to refugees or asylum seekers.

In this way, the same work regulations apply to migrant workers as well as refugees, which means they must be approved by the Minister of Labor, generally requiring that they fill needs which Jordanian workers cannot.

The only agreement Jordan signed concerning the status of refugees was one struck with the UNHCR back in 1998, which gave the agency the right to determine the status of asylum seekers in the country. Though it was renewed last year, the memorandum still fails to address the economic needs of refugees in any meaningful or explicit fashion, the ILO’s Kataa said.

According to Jordan’s government spokesperson, Mohammad al-Momani, anyone who wishes to work in the country must abide by its Labor Law regulations. The same goes for refugees. “There are things that people need to follow and, mainly, get a work permit. That’s the most important thing for us,” Momani told Venture.

But the ILO said the process of gaining a work permit isn’t at all straightforward. In a recently published study assessing the impact of Syrian refugees on Jordan’s labor market, the ILO found that only 10 percent of Syrians working in the country had a permit, with over half of the study participants citing the prohibitive cost of obtaining one as the reason.

Annual prices for work permits range from JD170 to JD370, according to official figures. Many refugees simply cannot afford to pay these amounts, having often entered the country with few personal belongings and without a passport—itself, a necessary document for the process.

Kataa believes this is unfair. “It should not be the refugees paying for a work permit but the employers instead,” she said. “But they are not interested in getting them work permits because having a huge pool of Syrians working informally is more convenient for them as they can work for longer hours under the minimum wage and in harsher conditions.”

With no clear regulations for refugees in Jordan’s labor market, Syrians not only face exploitation and lower wages, but are also often blamed for stealing jobs from Jordanians and contributing to an uptick in unemployment in the country.

Increased Unemployment


Although government figures show an average of 12.5 percent unemployment among Jordanians in the past decade, a recent study conducted by the ILO found that around 22 percent of Jordanians were out of work in 2014, up from 14 percent prior to the Syrian crisis. “This situation is leading the Jordanian labor market to more distortion with longer working hours, lower wages, and unfair conditions imposed on the worker,” economist Zayyan Zawaneh said.

The conclusion of the ILO study was shocking, Zawaneh said, adding that Syrian refugee workers had a major impact on the construction and agricultural sectors.

He said the survey showed the percentage of Jordanians who were working in the construction sector fell from 9 to 7 percent. “We need to notice that only youth work in this sector and that’s why I am relating this to the skyrocketing youth unemployment in Jordan,” he explained.

According to Zawaneh, efforts to convince Jordanians there was nothing a’yb, or shameful, about working in labor intensive jobs have now been wasted. “Over the last 10 years, under the pressure of unemployment, this culture of a’yb started fading,” Zawaneh said. “It was a real shift in the attitude of Jordanians towards work, and they started taking jobs that they were refusing a decade ago. But what’s happened in the past five years has instead crowded them out of the market, as Syrians are competing with them over lower-skilled jobs.”

But economist and former deputy prime minister Jawad Anani disagrees. He said the influx of Syrian workers hasn’t threatened the jobs of Jordanians, but rather the jobs of other expatriate workers, particularly those from Egypt. “Syrians were able to replace them, as they are not only asking for lower wages but are also showing more technical skills and competence as they are traditionally craftsmen,” he said.

Anani pointed out that some Syrians have also created more job opportunities for Jordanians, having established businesses and companies in the country that employed Jordanian workers.

Overall, Anani said he appreciates the dilemma the government finds itself in. If the job market is opened up further to Syrian refugees, then already disgruntled Jordanians will likely become even more vocal in their opposition. But he added: “If we turn a blind eye to this issue of work for Syrians, then what are they going to do?”

A Window of Opportunity

According to Kataa, the government is now opening a window that could give refugees in Jordan more chances to be employed in the local market. “Amman is aware that the humanitarian assistance will not be there for a long time, so they are trying to find alternatives for Syrians’ livelihood in Jordan since they aren’t likely to get back anytime soon,” she said. “We have to be realistic about it and to find a way in which both Jordanians and Syrians could benefit.”

In a sign the government might be willing to give more ground, Kataa referred to an interview with Jordan’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Imad Najib Fakhoury, published by the Associated Press in early June, in which he said the government was studying ways to open some sectors to Syrian workers.

“This was the first time I saw something like this,” she said, adding that during recent talks held with members of NGOs active in the country and Jordanian officials, she noticed an opening, or at least room for one in the future, to introduce a regulated labor market, as it would also decrease the presence of cheap workforce and pose less of a threat to Jordanian workers.

“We have to [seize this opportunity] and propose realistic scenarios to the government, to show them that if they open more sectors … the international community might intervene and support more projects,” Kataa said. “In this way, one could employ both Syrians and Jordanians, and at the same time contribute to the country’s development.”