Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

Jordan’s illegal labor puzzle: Let Syrian refugees work or just survive?

With high unemployment for citizens and competition with other foreign laborers, civil society debates the rules

AMMAN, Jordan — The streets are quiet and very dark at 4 a.m., when Mohammad al-Masri begins to wash cars. An Egyptian, he has been in Jordan for four and a half years, washing 50 vehicles every day for one Jordanian dinar per car, which amounts to $70 total. On lucky days, he can get 20 dinars to clean a whole house. He likes early mornings because the police aren’t awake yet. He has no work permit, so he scrubs windshields with muscles tensed, ready to sprint if the police come for him. But he makes more in Jordan than he did as a farmer in Egypt — as long as he can run from the law and the Syrians don’t interfere.

“We don’t allow other nationalities to clean cars here,” Masri said. He and his Egyptian friends have staked out their part of the labor market, wary of competition from the Syrians staffing nearby coffee stands and restaurants.

Across the street, 45-year-old Abu Said works in a bakery from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. He makes 300 dinars a month, which is less than the Jordanian and Egyptian employees. But without a work permit or contract, he can’t press the boss for equal pay. “I owned two factories in Syria, but they are destroyed now,” said Abu Said, who has been in Jordan as a refugee for three years. When police arrive at the bakery, he pretends to be a customer.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the desert, 31 illegal underage workers are waiting for their families in a fenced and guarded area of temporary metal residences, scarce water and no electricity. The workers are all under 18 — Syrian children caught picking tomatoes, pushing wheelbarrows or collecting garbage to pay their families’ food expenses and rent — and their holding pen is Azraq Refugee Camp.

As Syria slogs into its fifth year of war, 3.8 million external refugees are running out of ways to survive outside their war-torn homeland. UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Maha Homsi said that Syrian refugees in Jordan are being pushed toward “negative coping mechanisms,” a euphemism for drug trafficking, prostitution, child labor and crime. The children stuck at Azraq are Syrians picked up for working illegally, Homsi said, and were sent to a reception area for unaccompanied minors. Jordanian authorities are trying to reunite the children with their families, and some have been sent back to their parents in Zaatari, the other refugee camp. But many of their families are urban refugees who sneaked out of camps in the first place. They haven’t picked up their children because they are afraid of being locked in the camp too, Homsi said.

Child labor is just one part of Jordan’s Syrian labor conundrum. From a government perspective, articulated by Jordanian media, Syrians are a burden. A 2014 cost-benefit analysis by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) estimated that Syrian refugees cost Jordan up to 5.1 billion dinars from 2012 through 2014. They weigh on the infrastructure and compete for jobs, while driving down wages and raising rents.

The state’s solution has been to tighten restrictions on refugee labor, saying Jordanians need the jobs. But experts disagree on the causes of Jordanian unemployment. Meanwhile, the legal penalties for illegal labor are mostly paid by employees, not employers. Even as workers are detained and sent to their home countries or refugee camps, Jordanian bosses at factories, farms and shops can keep their profits. However, the losers remain: Jordanian youth, who face high unemployment; Jordan’s government, which forgoes the workers’ would-be taxes and permit fees; and the workers, who suffer exploitation and fear.

“Refugees should not work,” said Maisoon al-Amarneh, a labor policy analyst at the Economic and Social Council and one of the KAS report’s researchers. “International organizations provide them with everything — a place to stay, food, health. Why do they need to work?” Refugee labor is illegal competition, Amarneh said. And many Jordanians agree.

Under Jordanian law, Syrian refugees are in the same category as other foreigners: they can work, but only if a Jordanian employer applies and pays the fee for a work permit on their behalf. “We do not have limitations on any nationality working in Jordan,” said Suha Labadi, the Ministry of Labor’s director of international cooperation. Once the employer submits an application, she said, a committee reviews it, considers how many Jordanians the business employs and decides how many foreign workers it may have on that basis. Syrians, like any other nationality, are technically eligible for work permits in any sector except those reserved for nationals under Jordanian law — a category that includes over a dozen professions, from medial services to haircutting.

But in practice, only about 6,000 out of more than 620,000 registered refugees and 1.4 million total Syrians in Jordan hold legal permits, according to the Ministry of Labor. The rest work illegally, taking longer hours for lower wages than Jordanians or migrants from other countries, risking arrest and being sent to Azraq Camp or, some claim, back to Syria.

In Jordan, 84 percent of Syrian refugees live outside the camps, where services are evaporating. The World Food Program cut food assistance this winter, resuming coupons only for those deemed most vulnerable. Health services for Syrians stopped in October. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) keeps requesting funding, but received only 61 percent of its $3.7 billion appeal in 2014. After four years in asylum, even the best-off refugees are running out of savings. Work is their only way to survive, so they have saturated the informal labor sector, which makes up 44 percent of Jordan’s domestic businesses, according to a 2012 study by the Economic and Social Council.

‘Refugees should not work. International organizations provide them with everything – a place to stay, food, health. Why do they need to work?’

Maisoon al-Amarneh

Economic and Social Council

An estimated 110,000 to 140,000 Syrians are working in Jordan, the KAS study calculated, excluding 30,000 illegal child laborers. Those are forfeited Jordanian jobs, the report asserted, adding that Jordanian unemployment jumped 2 percentage points, to 14 percent, from 2011 to 2013, when Syrians started flooding Jordan.

But economists question the correlation between Jordanian unemployment and foreign labor. Jordan’s unemployment rate has fluctuated steadily from 12 to 14 percent for the last 10 years, said Ahmad Awad, director of the Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies, which also conducted a study on Syrian refugees’ impact on Jordanian labor.

“The problem of high unemployment is not foreign workers. It’s the internal structure of the labor market,” he said. Jordan is suffering a labor crisis, he explained, especially among its youth, one-third of whom are unemployed. But the reason 16-to-24-year-olds can’t find jobs is that Jordan’s universities and occupational institutions are not producing graduates with adequate skills for the economy’s needs.

“Look at the university commencement exam and you’ll see that just 44 percent of graduates had acquired the skills necessary for their degree,” Awad said. “They are not capable for our economy, especially in the industrial and service sectors.”

If anything, Syrians are competing with migrant workers, he said, especially Egyptians, who generally dominate sectors like cleaning, agriculture and construction. “People complain that jobs are going to Syrians, not Jordanians. Four years ago, they said the same thing about Egyptians,” he said, adding that Syrians had benefited Jordan’s macroeconomy by boosting consumption and foreign assistance. “They’ve improved our GDP growth from 2.2 percent to 3 percent, and there’s expectation that it will reach 4 percent.”

Elizabeth Frantz, an analyst at the Open Society Foundation’s International Migration Initiative, pointed out the discrepancy between Jordanian perceptions of foreign competition and actual reliance on non-Jordanian labor.

Migrant workers comprise at least a quarter of Jordan’s workforce, she said, and authorities often speak of the need to Jordanize the labor market. Article 12 of the 1996 Jordanian Labor Code states that foreigners should be hired only if no qualified Jordanians can perform the job. Then priority should be given to other Arab workers. But in practice, she said, manual labor jobs mostly go to expatriates from Arab and Asian countries.

“Truly decreasing the numbers of migrants employed in the country does not seem to be on the agenda of the business community or the government,” Frantz wrote in an email.

Regulating the informal sector is supposedly a state priority, yet the Ministry of Labor employs only 160 inspectors for the whole country, the ministry’s Child Labor Unit head Shereen al-Tayib said. They don’t inspect the agricultural sector, where most migrant exploitation occurs.

‘The problem of high unemployment is not foreign workers. It’s the internal structure of the labor market ... Just 44 percent of [university] graduates had acquired the skills necessary for their degree. They are not capable for our economy.’

Ahmad Awad

Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies

“The Ministry of Labor tries to be like heroes, saying, ‘We will hire Jordanians.’ But they don’t. It’s fake. It’s like propaganda,” said Linda al-Kalash, director of Tamkeen, a Jordanian legal aid center. The number of documented migrant workers in Jordan grew from 280,000 last year to 300,000 this year, she said, not to mention the number of undocumented workers.

Some attribute the large migrant presence to a culture of shame, in which Jordanians don’t want to do lower-class jobs like factory or farm work. So Sudanese clean the shopping malls, Syrians farm the Jordan Valley, Egyptians wash cars in the streets, and many Jordanians graduate from college to joblessness. But Frantz pointed out that the current system also plays well to employer preferences.

“Migrants tend to earn less than their Jordanian counterparts. Those who engage in strikes can be deported swiftly,” Frantz said, adding that employers don’t have to contribute toward social security or severance pay for migrants. Foreign workers take “lower wages with fewer protections,” she said, which means employers profit.

The other profiteers of Jordan’s informal sector are the brokers, bribe takers and smugglers of the kefala (sponsorship) system for work permits and refugee camp bailouts. At least 40 percent of migrant worker recruitment in the agricultural sector is fraudulent, according to Tamkeen. Brokers sell migrants “free contracts” promising a nonexistent status of flexible employment for about $1,000, a Tamkeen report said, and then leave the workers trapped in illegal situations. Radio al-Balad, a Jordanian news station, found Jordanian security officers and Syrians complicit in a dual black market of bribes for work permits and smuggling from refugee camps.

The lack of regulation is also a loss for the government. Employers’ failure to secure work permits for Syrians incurred about $500 million in revenue losses to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security Corp., the KAS study estimated. Yet Jordanian authorities tend to penalize migrant and refugee workers, not their employers.

‘The Ministry of Labor tries to be like heroes, saying ‘We will hire Jordanians.’ But they don’t. It’s fake. It’s like propaganda.’

Linda al-Kalash

Tamkeen, a legal aid center

Rumors of refugee deportation are rampant among Syrians, although Jordanian officials deny that this happens. Jordan has not ratified the 1951 Geneva Conventions, an international standard of refugee rights law, but its agreement with the UNHCR binds it to the principle of nonrefoulement — that is, not sending refugees back into a war zone where they may be persecuted.

“Whatever happens, we cannot deport Syrians. This has never happened,” the Ministry of Labor’s Labadi said.  But Human Rights Watch claims Jordan has deported Syrian refugees — including wounded men, unaccompanied children and medical workers — and has refused entry to and deported Palestinians from Syria.

Meanwhile, the few groups that have tried to facilitate refugee livelihoods say the presence of refugees has in fact strengthened host communities. The Near East Foundation, for example, gave business training and cash assistance in Zarqa to Iraqi and Jordanian women, who then built home-based businesses, from private catering to soap making.

One Iraqi refugee woman partnered with a Jordanian woman who bought wholesale blankets and detergent for lower prices in the Aqaba duty-free zone, then returned and distributed them through the Iraqi’s networks. Another Iraqi refugee, 42-year-old Fadiya Bayati, was so successful in her leatherwork business that she now trains Jordanians and Syrians. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said, displaying the wallets and belts she makes from cheap recycled leather and then sells at tourist shops. “I’m happy to train other women, and then we choose our own way to live.”

Jina Krause-Vilmar, the foundation’s livelihoods, gender and conflict expert, said that refugee assistance had to shift from being a handout to being a hand up.

“To leave Syria takes a lot of strength,” she said, adding that it was wrong “to paint them as helpless, force them to adopt a victim narrative and beg for aid.” 

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