AMMAN, Jordan — In the billion dollar Jordan Compact, Amman pledged to integrate Syrian refugees into its labor force in exchange for improved access to the European market, grants and cheap loans. The compact, reached Feb. 4 at a donor conference in London, seeks to transform the Syrian refugee crisis into an opportunity, but so far, the Hashemite kingdom is struggling to meet its targets.
Allowing Syrians to work legally is one of the conditions for Jordanian access to $300-$500 million in World Bank loans at near 0%, so in April, Jordan implemented a 90-day grace period for Syrians to obtain free work permits. The government had hoped to issue 50,000 permits, and the World Bank estimated that some 100,000 Syrians might enter the formal workforce through the initiative.
The three-month period ends July 5, however, with fewer than 13,000 Syrians having obtained permits, said Labor Ministry spokesman Mohammad Khatib. “It’s not easy to convince them, no matter how much we try,” Khatib told Al-Monitor.
Two weeks before the end of the grace period, the Labor Ministry dispatched 50 teams of inspectors nationwide to crack down on workers without permits. Until the end of the grace period, Syrians caught working illegally were to be issued a warning and instructed to apply for permits, Khatib said, adding that fines against employers were effective in encouraging more Syrians to legalize their status.
Syrians who spoke to Al-Monitor said that although they want to work legally, the government initiative is not helping them do so. Abu Ayham, a father of five from Aleppo who fled to Jordan in 2014, works in construction, one of the sectors open to Syrians, but he has been unable to get a permit.
“My problem is that I don’t work for a fixed employer,” he told Al-Monitor, explaining that he takes casual work wherever he can. To obtain a work permit, Syrians need an employment contract, social security registration and, crucially, an employer willing to support their application. These are hard to come by for many workers in the limited sectors for which permits are available, including construction, hospitality, cleaning and agriculture.
Some Syrians have circumvented this problem by paying a broker to act as an employer, a tactic long practiced by Egyptian migrants. Abu Ayham said his attempt stumbled when the brokers demanded fees of 300-400 Jordanian dinars ($420-560), money he didn't have. “My situation is really bad,” he said, adding that among employers offering regular work, “They want young guys. I’m in my 30s.”
Workers with permits are legally tied to their sponsoring employer, a situation some Syrians want to avoid. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has called the kafala (sponsorship) system “inherently problematic,” as it creates a power dynamic that leaves workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
To avoid Syrians competing for jobs with migrant workers and displacing Jordanian laborers, work permits for them are only available in sectors that Jordanians generally shun. Syrians employed outside the designated sectors, such as in journalism, continue to work illegally.
“They don’t issue permits for this kind of job,” Mohammad, a journalist from Daraa, told Al-Monitor. “We are working illegally here, and there is no law to protect us.” Under Jordanian law, non-Jordanians caught working in closed professions face deportation. According to Khatib, however, this sanction is not being applied to Syrian refugees.
“The Syrians, we can't do anything to them. If we catch them, we warn them,” he said, adding that procedures might change after the grace period expires for free permits. “After that, we don't know what the law will be, but for sure we will be strict.”
Syrians told Al-Monitor that some refugees caught working illegally have been sent to refugee camps. Despite this, some eligible for permits are reluctant to apply because they fear that by formalizing their employment status, they might lose financial assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This concern deterred Samir, who works in an Amman office running errands and serving tea and coffee, from asking his employer to help him get a permit.
Samir, who makes around 200 Jordanian dinars ($280) a month, told Al-Monitor that he was also worried that permit renewal fees will be unaffordable. “They might give you the permit for one year, but the next year, you have to pay. Then you will pay 300 Jordanian dinars [$420] or 500 Jordanian dinars [$700] for it,” he said.
The UNHCR has tried to allay refugees’ concerns about the permits. UNHCR spokeswoman Helene Daubelcour told Al-Monitor in an email that her organization had sent a text message assuring them that getting the permit would not affect their financial assistance.
“Even though this initiative has reached a fraction of the Syrian refugee population capable of working, we still believe it has been a large success,” Daubelcour said, noting that it enabled Syrians to access the legal protections provided by Jordanian law, like minimum wage, defined working hours and maternity leave.
The ILO, which is working with the Jordanian government to integrate the refugees into the workforce, also considers the initiative to have been a success, said Maha Kattaa, the ILO's Syrian Refugee Response coordinator. Kattaa told Al-Monitor that the need to have a supportive employer had slowed obtaining permits. Initially, only 200 Syrians applied for permits to work in agriculture, but 2,300 more were issued permits after the ILO worked with the government to allow farm workers to legalize their status through agricultural cooperatives, without the need for employers, Kattaa said.
ILO and UNHCR officials hope Jordan will extend the grace period beyond the current deadline. Broader measures to integrate Syrians into Jordan’s labor market, however, would entail sensitive political and economic calculations given Jordanians' high levels of unemployment, which sparked violent protests south of Amman in recent weeks, and increasing frustration over economic conditions.
Meanwhile, the outlook for the Jordan Compact's initiative to create new jobs for Syrians in special economic zones also remains uncertain. In London, EU representatives had promised to improve Jordanian access to the European market, offering relaxed rules of origin, which could qualify products manufactured in Jordan for duty-free trade. Amman hopes this will attract investors to its industrial zones and thereby create jobs for Syrians and Jordanians alike.
Although Jordan says this could create 150,000 new jobs for Syrians, reaching such an ambitious goal would require huge investments from the private sector that are far from guaranteed. The kingdom has been clear that the number of jobs it can create depends on the level of support from the international community.
While Jordan hopes a deal with the European Union on trade concessions can be reached in July, donors have been slow to follow through on the generous pledges made in London for $2.1 billion in grants and up to $1.9 billion a year in concessionary loans. Donors might have hoped that pledging billions of dollars to Syria’s neighbors would stop Syrians from heading for the West, but the plan has failed to convince Samir.
Sitting on the pavement outside the German Embassy in Amman clutching a visa application, he said, “I’m trying to go to Germany.”