Valuing Workers Wherever They’re From

We must not forget that migrant workers and refugees have much to contribute to Jordan’s economy. 

By Patrick Daru

On December 18, the world marked International Migrants Day–a moment to celebrate the contributions of migrant workers to our economies and societies, and reiterate the call for respect, safety and dignity for all workers. In Jordan, this day provides an opportunity to reflect on the impact of both migrant workers and refugees on the labor market, and to strategize how to move towards a future that secures decent work for all.

Currently, Jordan’s labor market comprises a mix of Jordanian workers, migrant workers from Asia and Africa, and refugee workers, mostly from Syria. Although precise numbers are not available, recent estimates suggest that there may be as many non-Jordanians working in the Kingdom as there are Jordanians.

This poses complex and perhaps competing labor market goals. The first is to address Jordanian unemployment and increase Jordanian womens’ labor market participation. Secondly, Jordan needs to develop 200,000 decent jobs for Syrians, as per the requirements of the Jordan Compact. Finally, there is a need to continue to improve conditions for migrant workers in the garment manufacturing, domestic work, agriculture, construction and tourism sectors.

Because all three groups of workers are present in significant numbers, it is inevitable that the groups impact on each other. This is why the specific challenges of any group–including Jordanians–need to be addressed within the context of the labour market as a whole.

While juggling these complex goals, the voices of the workers and employers must be heard. To this end, the UN’s International Labor Organization recently undertook a major study of the state of Jordan’s labor market, which involved interviewing workers and employers in the five key sectors previously mentioned.

The findings reveal the bottlenecks to achieving decent work for each group, but also point to promising ways forward. I here wish to highlight three of the major findings.Firstly, the study found that there was potential to increase employment among Jordanians in all sectors, provided the working conditions are of a decent standard. Jordanians expressed an unwillingness to work in sectors where they perceive the working conditions to be harsh.

The decent working conditions Jordanian workers value were in contradiction to the working conditions experienced by many migrant and Syrian refugee workers, who experienced late payment of wages, non-payment of overtime, long working hours and harsh manual labor. This disconnect leads to accusations that migrant and Syrian refugee workers are the cause of lower wages and worsening working conditions, and are pushing Jordanian workers out of the labor market. In reality, this situation highlights the need to ensure minimum labor standards, supported through robust implementation of the labor law, to ensure an even playing field for all workers.

In Jordan, securing decent working conditions for all in the manufacturing sector is linked to the sustainability and expansion of export to the United States and Europe, and to the employment levels of Jordanians. This exemplifies the relevance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which firmly links growth to employment and decent work. In other words, decent work is not an “afterthought,” to be examined when and if growth and employment levels improve; the three aspects are intrinsically linked.

A further area of examination was that of the kafala sponsorship system. The study suggests that the current system is not meeting the demand of employers for more flexible, short-term and part-time employment arrangements. The call was heard from large construction sites to family homes balancing care and domestic work responsibilities. Workers expressed their frustration at their inability to bring about change while multiple intermediaries benefit.

The report suggests that this issue can be addressed through delegating responsibility for the work permit process to the worker, rather than the employer. In August 2017, the Jordanian government initiated steps in this direction for Syrian refugees in the agriculture sector (where the cooperative acts as the sponsor/employer), and in the construction sector (where the trade union serves as the sponsor/employer). This innovative model should be monitored for impact and potential expansion to other categories of workers, other sectors and other countries in the region.

Lastly, although comprising only a fifth of the total number of non-Jordanian workers, the presence of Syrians has introduced a new dynamic in the labour market. While challenges have emerged, the presence of refugee workers also provides opportunities. Whereas migrant workers send the bulk of their wages back home as remittances, Syrian wages are spent inside Jordan, thereby providing a boost to the economy.

Also, to the great benefit of enterprises, costs for recruiting Syrian workers can be dramatically reduced, as they are already present in the country and ready to work. And despite generally low levels of education, many Syrian refugees have strong entrepreneurial skills as well as skills in trades. The study therefore recommends the provision of a simple mechanism for self-employed Syrians to formalize their status, and to expand training, certification and job-matching programs that help Syrians refine their skills to suit Jordanian production methods and to establish themselves in the labour market.

While the study provides practical recommendations, it must be emphasized that none of these policies can be achieved without dedicated efforts to ensure social cohesion and solidarity among all workers. All partners must work to improve social dialogue and ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable are not left unheard. The focus must shift from what migrants and refugees take, to what they contribute. For me, this report highlights more than ever the need for a universal set of labor rights protection. The ILO stands ready to assist Jordan’s government, workers, and enterprises towards the common goal of job promotion and decent work for all.