Blog post by Ala Al-Mahaidi, who holds a Master of Arts (Human Rights) from the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a Bachelor of Economics (Honours) from the University of Sydney. He now works at the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions.*
For close to a decade, the conflict in Syria has driven people from their homes in what has become the world’s largest displacement crisis. Neighbouring Jordan hosts the third-largest Syrian refugee population, after Turkey and Lebanon. As a country that grapples with high unemployment and a stagnant economy, Jordan has tried to see the influx of Syrians as an opportunity for growth.
In 2016, the Jordanian government, together with EU and international actors, adopted the Jordan Compact, an agreement aimed at creating self-sufficient livelihoods for Syrian refugees and Jordanians while boosting the national economy. Jordan agreed to make it easier for Syrian refugees to access work permits and register businesses, while simplifying its foreign investment regulations. The EU reduced trade barriers on products manufactured by firms in Jordan’s Special Economic Zones, provided that they employ Syrian refugees as a certain portion of their workforce. International donors provided grants and concessionary financing to support Jordan’s macroeconomic framework.
This was seen as a ‘win-win-win’ solution: Jordan wanted to develop its manufacturing sector and reduce unemployment, the EU wanted to stem the flow of Syrian migration to Europe, and Syrian refugees wanted to work.
However, with the Jordan Compact’s mid-term review scheduled for this year, policy-makers must address its shortcomings. While funding is tied to refugee work permit targets, this does not necessarily translate into livelihood outcomes. Syrians face a number of social and institutional barriers in accessing formal work, and there are concerns about the protection of their labour rights. Although Jordan arguably has international legal obligations to secure the rights to work and to fair working conditions for refugees, human rights considerations are absent in the Jordan Compact.
The adoption of a human rights-based approach can help to overcome some of these challenges. This involves anchoring the plans, policies and processes of the Jordan Compact in certain core principles that help to ensure that refugees’ legal rights are realised in everyday practice. Those principles include: participation, empowerment, equality, non-discrimination, accountability and transparency.
According to this approach, refugees should be able to participate in policy-making to ensure that they have ownership over processes that affect their rights and that policies are informed by their own experiences. They should be empowered with the knowledge and capacity to claim their rights, and afforded those rights on equal terms without discrimination. Duty-bearers should also be kept to account in delivering on their human rights obligations with full transparency.
This can be applied in the context of Syrian refugees in Jordan in the following ways.
Facilitating refugee participation in policy-making
A lack of refugee participation in the formation of the Jordan Compact has led to a misalignment of policy and practice. While the Jordan Compact aims to create new work opportunities in the manufacturing sector, the typical training profile of Syrians in Jordan may not be appropriate for manufacturing work. Syrians, particularly those accompanied by family members and who live in urban areas, face several disincentives to working in Special Economic Zones, such as distance, poor transport links, long commute times and poor working conditions.
Also, many Jordanian manufacturers – who are ultimately the ones employing refugees – lack the marketing networks, competitiveness and experience in EU markets to qualify for export under the Jordan Compact rules, with only 13 companies approved under the scheme as of February 2019. Some struggle to meet the minimum quota of Syrian employees needed to qualify. To help tackle these issues, Syrian refugees and their employers should be involved in the mid-term review of the Jordan Compact to ensure that their needs and realities are heard and addressed.
Effective refugee participation has been seen at the local level. For example, in Sahab, whose economy relies on its manufacturing industry and whose Special Economic Zone is considered a success story of the Jordan Compact, the municipality has involved Syrian refugees in community consultations on municipal development. In contrast, the Zarqa governorate has shown resistance to the presence of Syrian refugees, due partly to the area’s high level of unemployment. To ensure that such differences in local realities are considered, policy-making around the Jordan Compact should include the participation of local authorities, as they ultimately help facilitate refugees’ labour market participation at the local level.
Empowering refugees to claim their labour rights
Refugees can be more empowered to understand and claim their labour rights by reducing the bureaucratic hurdles that they often face in accessing formal work. For example, in navigating the so-called ‘work permit maze’, Syrians receive inconsistent information about employment and social security rules. However, there has been some improvement, with the establishment of Employment Service Centres across Jordan and an e-learning programme that informs refugees about their legal rights and responsibilities.
Reducing cost barriers can also help. The waiving of work permit fees in 2016 has helped increase applications, although refugees still face hidden costs, such as having to pay a broker to make an application or their employer’s social security contributions. While the fee waiver has been extended until at least the end of 2020, some have underlined the need for early information before fees are reintroduced to ensure clarity and certainty for refugees and their employers.
An empowerment approach could also help refugees overcome obstacles in registering a business, such as through financial start-up support. Given that Syrian entrepreneurs must register for investor status and demonstrate a deposit of JD 50,000 (US $70,510), as well as legal residency and a Jordanian business partner, few have taken up the opportunity, with only 5 per centworking on their own account. However, some of these barriers have been reduced for home-based businesses in certain sectors, which can be run without a Jordanian business partner with licencing costs of around JD 300 (US $423). This is particularly relevant for Syrian women, as many prefer to work at home.
Syrian refugees living in camps have also been allowed to obtain work permits and engage in commercial activities outside of their camp. While camp-based refugees typically rely on humanitarian assistance and informal work, this policy has empowered them to move more freely for up to one month at a time to access formal work, with the support of employment centres established in camps. However, this may impact on refugees’ other socio-economic rights; while they are away from their camp, they often cannot access essential services, such as healthcare, which would otherwise be provided in the camp.
Also, many Syrians are contractually employed in municipal works through donor-funded projects in areas with a high ratio of non-Jordanian workers. While these are mostly short-term opportunities, they can be designed with the longer-term empowerment of refugees in mind. For example, they could help to develop human capital for both Syrian refugees and Jordanians – like knowledge, experience and social networks – or be focused on development projects that relieve pressure on infrastructure. For example, the Waste to (Positive) Energy project, funded by the German government, employs Syrians and Jordanians to improve solid waste management to benefit communities across four governorates.
Ensuring equality and non-discrimination in the labour market
The Jordanian government could arguably create more equal labour market access by allowing Syrian refugees to be employed in professions that are currently closed to them, such as professions in accounting, administration, engineering, medicine and teaching. Given that one of the most frequent reasons why Syrians do not apply for a work permit is their unavailability for their profession, this could be particularly impactful way of expanding livelihood opportunities.
However, this is economically and politically challenging, as limiting professions is a part of the Jordanian government’s endeavour to tackle high unemployment of nationals, especially among university graduates. Nonetheless, some say that there is still scope to employ Syrians in sectors related to the export industry that suffer from a shortage of Jordanian workers. Others have pointed out a ‘functional demand’ for Syrian talent in closed professions, as employers sometimes work around the rules to employ Syrians, such as by registering an engineer as a construction worker.
Gender equality in the labour market should also be a central goal. Only 4.8 per cent of work permits have been issued to Syrian women, due in part to cultural attitudes about gender roles. Many women are deterred from working in manufacturing firms in Special Economic Zones due to the conditions of work, including a lack of women-only workspaces and childcare facilities. Employers should accommodate for these needs and allow Syrian women to work closer to their homes, such as by outsourcing some production or setting up satellite factories.
Promoting greater accountability and transparency
Putting in place better accountability mechanisms could help address mistrust in authorities that inhibits refugees from claiming their labour rights. Syrians have reported a fear of approaching authorities to resolve employment-related issues due to the police’s power to send refugees to camps or to deport them to Syria, amplified by rumours of refugee harassment at the hands of authorities. Refugee-tailored state services, such as employment dispute mechanisms that focus on refugee circumstances, could be adopted to increase refugees’ confidence in authorities, enhance their capacities to claim their rights and better prepare authorities to address refugees’ concerns.
Accountability and transparency is also needed in the private sector, given the concerns about poor working conditions, particularly in manufacturing firms. There has been some progress in this regard. Since the Better Work Jordan monitoring programme began reporting in 2009 on apparel companies’ compliance with labour standards, including through its online Transparency Portal, working conditions in garment factories appear to have improved. This could be replicated in other sectors, helping to better inform refugees about working conditions.
Also, while many Syrian refugees are active in Jordan’s gig economy, or labour market activities coordinated through online mobile platforms, accountability mechanisms and the enforcement of labour rights are often lacking in this space. In Jordan, gig work represents a ‘legal grey area’ where the work is often done outside of the purview of authorities, creating possibilities for exploitation. This area of work needs to be placed more firmly within the scope of the law to ensure labour rights protections.
In these ways, an approach centred around human rights can help to overcome some of the barriers that undermine the Jordan Compact’s success. However, deeper and more structural interventions are required to address the constraints on decent work created by long-term characteristics of Jordan’s political economy, like its reliance on zonal development, precarious migrant labour and labour informality. Nevertheless, a human rights-based approach can help in dealing with the more immediate challenges faced by Syrian refugees in Jordan.
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