MAFRAQ, Jordan — When her 12-year-old daughter Uala started bleeding, Siam thought it was her period. But after 45 days, it was clear something was wrong with her. It was August 2017, and Siam and her daughter were working in a greenhouse in one of the hundreds of farms in the Mafraq area of northern Jordan. In summer, temperatures reach 35 or 40 degrees Celsius (95 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit), usually 10 more inside the greenhouse.
Siam is from Aleppo. Five years ago she had no choice but to join her husband, who had already been working in Mafraq since 2005. Over the past few years, Syrian women picking tomatoes or cucumbers have become a common sight in the fields of Badia Shmali, as this area is called.
The pay for Syrians is the same anywhere: 1 Jordanian dinar ($1.41) per hour, pushing entire families, children included, to work 10 to 12 hours a day, depending on the weather.
“At first it was very hard. My husband and I cried when we had to send our 11-year-old daughter to work,” Siam told Al-Monitor. But going back to Syria was not an option. Siam ended up marrying off her eldest daughter last year when she turned 15 so that she could stop working in the fields. It was Uala's turn to replace her, at least until last year.
After 45 days of bleeding, Siam took her daughter Uala to the hospital in Mafraq. The doctor told her she had probably gotten sick due to the heat in the greenhouse. But Siam could not afford the tests the doctor recommended, so they still do not know what's wrong. Siam lives with her family in a tent 10 minutes from the farm where she works with her daughters and relatives. Fearing for her health, she decided not to send Uala back to work this summer. She had no choice but to send her younger sister, who is turning 12 this year, instead.
Every day at dawn, a car picks them all up from the makeshift camp where they live and take them to Abu Hamza's farm. Their faces covered in scarves as protection from the dust, the group of women aged 15 to 50 works bare-handed or in ripped rubber gloves, hunched over in the sun.
Every summer, Abu Hamza employs around 100 workers. “All of them are Syrian, and 70% of them are women. I prefer working with women because they complain less and make less trouble,” he told Al-Monitor while supervising a group of workers weeding a tomato field.
Syrian workers are also cheaper than Egyptians, he said. When Jordan’s Labor Ministry began to grant Syrian refugees work permits at the end of 2016, it also tightened restrictions on Egyptian workers that made it more convenient for farmers to hire Syrians.
As a result of the 2016 agreement between the European Union and Jordan – known as the Jordan Compact — the Labor Ministry made it easier also for agricultural workers to get permits. But despite those efforts, all the women Al-Monitor spoke to were working without permits. Most of them claimed to have a good relationship with their employer, but if problems arise they are unlikely to file a complaint for fear of retaliation.
Little official data is available. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that around 4%-5% of the Syrians working in Jordan are employed in agriculture. “Compared to construction or other sectors, it is not so many, but conditions are particularly tough and concerning,” Maha Katta, ILO's coordinator for response to the Syrian refugee crisis, told Al-Monitor.
Director of the Jordanian nongovernmental organization Tamkeen Linda al-Kalash told Al-Monitor that around 20,000 Syrians, mainly women, work between Mafraq and the Jordan Valley. The estimate falls far short of the 31,074 work permits issued so far by the Ministry of Labor to Syrians in the agriculture sector. The reason is simple: “Syrians got the agriculture permit because it was the easiest to get, but then they work in different sectors,” Katta said.
ILO recently conducted a survey among 1,400 Syrian agricultural workers, Katta said. “Our main concern is child labor. Most of the families work as a group, 60% of them live in tents and most of the children do not go to school.”
According to Katta, the situation is a vicious cycle: The war in Syria and turmoil in Iraq have made exporting produce uncertain, hitting farmers hard. At the moment the sector attracts mainly unskilled workers. But it has a great potential. “Investments are needed to make it more efficient and profitable, and to preserve water. The problem is that international donors are not willing to invest in a sector where labor exploitation is such a severe concern,” Katta said.
Gender-based violence is also a problem. Jordan has the highest rate of female participation in agriculture in the MENA region, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Tamkeen puts it around 75% and says it is likely to increase.
Recently, Tamkeen has been conducting focus groups with Syrians working in agriculture. But women very rarely speak up. “During awareness sessions, sometimes women noted, though vaguely, unwanted verbal attention or touching from the owner or co-workers,” Hanan, a Syrian community facilitator working with Tamkeen in Jerash, told Al-Monitor. But most of the time, they say nothing for fear of shame or worse: honor killing, added Bader, a Jordanian facilitator.
When asked if she was worried by men’s behavior toward her 13-year-old daughter, Siam lowered her voice and said that yes she is, because her daughter is so young. She had heard things elsewhere, she said, but believes there is no problem on the farm where they work. Anyway, they have no choice.