The Work Ahead for the ILO

The International Labour Organization’s newly-appointed regional chief has big plans to improve the lot of workers in Jordan over 2016 and beyond.

By Rebecca Irvine

With its mission to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection, and strengthen industrial relations, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is one of the most active and high profile United Nations agencies in the Middle East.

The ILO recently appointed Ruba Jaradat, a Jordanian expert in management and international development, as its Assistant Director General and Regional Director for Arab States. Jaradat said she’s eager to build on the ILO’s concrete accomplishments in Jordan over the coming years.

What have the ILO’s main successes been in Jordan and the wider region over recent years?

We do not work in isolation, but provide support to the government and our social partners to achieve more and better jobs for all. In this sense, our achievements in Jordan are not owned by the ILO, but are the reflection of our partners’ commitment to the Decent Work Agenda.

We are very proud to be associated with a number of important successes in Jordan, and here I can mention only a few. Firstly, social security has been extended to all formal and informal enterprises. Secondly, the forging of a sector-wide collective bargaining agreement for the garment sector has improved the working and living conditions of over 50,000 migrant workers. Finally, expanding the national child labor framework to at least half of the country’s governorates, so that child laborers and children at risk of child labor can be identified and benefit from counseling and referral services, is another major achievement.

What are the main issues the ILO will be focusing on in the region in 2016?

The unique circumstances in the Middle East mean that much of our work here will focus on fragile and conflict-affected areas. Lebanon and Jordan, for example, now host over 1.7 million registered Syrian refugees. Our mission is to restore and improve the livelihoods of the local communities that host these refugees, and of the refugees themselves, through a development-focused strategy. Our ultimate aim is to create social cohesion in the crisis affected communities, through policy development, sustainable livelihoods and employment creation, as well as tackling the worst forms of child labor.

In 2016, we also hope to take our promotion of sustainable livelihoods into Syria itself, as well as into more areas in Iraq. We will similarly escalate the creation of more and better jobs in the Gaza Strip, especially in the areas of cooperatives development, the vital fishing sector, and skills development to meet the evolving needs of the private sector.

What other programs do you have lined up for Jordan in 2016?

There are three main pillars of activity: improving working conditions and social dialogue, strengthening social protection, and increasing employment—especially for young people. However, we will need to take into account the changes that have taken place in the labor market over the past few years, and in particular focus on livelihoods in the local Jordanian communities that host refugees, and for the refugees themselves. There will also be more work on the social protection floor that was officially adopted by tripartite Jordanian stakeholders, mainly through defining and implementing minimum social protection entitlements for all Jordanians.

We will build on the success in promoting social dialogue in the garment sector, which employs mainly migrant workers. By strengthening the bargaining capacities of social partners, we can reach other sector-level collective bargaining agreements. We will also promote fair migration and address human trafficking.

Additionally, we will work to increase the labor force participation of women to secure equal pay for work of equal value, and advocate for better working conditions for female teachers in the private education sector, as well as continuing our initiatives in the Employment and Technical, Vocational Education and Training (ETVET) sector for an improved testing and certification system. This will involve promoting entrepreneurship education and self-employment among Jordanian youth.

Do you think the Jordanian government will make it easier for Syrian refugees to gain work permits in 2016?

While Syrians, like other non-Jordanian workers, may apply for permits provided that they are applying for positions that do not compete with Jordanians, and that the sectors they are applying for are not ‘’closed’’ to non-Jordanians, the situation is different for refugees. According to the Ministry of Labor, one main difference is that Syrian workers who have entered Jordan through unofficial borders or who are residents of refugee camps are not entitled to work permits.

We are coordinating with the government on ways to ease the procedures by which Syrians obtain work permits, especially for activities and sectors that are generally less attractive to Jordanians. We are also encouraging the employment of Syrians in selected industries in Qualifying Industrial Zones which will provide the labor supply needed to support sectors that contribute to Jordan’s economic growth. So far we have received encouraging signals from the government in this regard, and are looking into the practicalities of achieving these objectives.

How confident are you that the UN will meet its relief funding targets for the region in 2016?

I don’t think donor fatigue has set in. With multiple crises breaking out, international attention is focused on our area now more than ever. This could be an engine for increased international funding for the UN’s work in the region.

The London donor conference scheduled for February demonstrates that the international community is aware of its responsibilities towards protecting the millions of Syrian refugees and displaced persons, and the countries and local communities that host them, through funding and other forms of support. There is also awareness that not only humanitarian assistance, but also development-based support [is needed] to address the national, institutional, and systemic impacts of the crises affecting our region.

The ILO will continue working tirelessly to garner donor support for the many initiatives we are undertaking with our regional partners to address development and policy issues, from tackling child labor amongst Syrian refugee children, to developing and implementing national employment policies throughout the region. We have faith that the donor community realizes the urgency with which these challenges must be addressed.