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UN agencies join forces to help Syrians work in Jordan’s manufacturing sector

2 Oct 2017

Poverty-stricken refugees to legally enter the country’s workforce following years of displacement.

2 October 2017.

Amman – Izdihar has a husband, seven children aged between three and 18, and lives in one of the world’s largest refugees camps in northern Jordan. Her new home is just a few kilometres from Syria’s southern border province of Dara’a, where she and her family were living before violence of the country’s war forced them to flee in 2013.

The family has been in Za’atari camp ever since, along with 60,000 other current inhabitants, the echoes of bombardments across the border having marked their exile.

Izdihar is one of more than five million people to leave left Syria since conflict broke out in 2011. Shrugging off the hardships, she said that breaking down was never an option.

The 36-year-old is the family’s sole breadwinner and recently joined one of the country’s garment factories as a tailor. She is among 30 refugees whose 45-minute transport between the plant and the camp is covered by the factory’s owner. Earning a monthly salary of 207 Dinar (293USD), the Syrians work six days a week in eight-hour shifts. They receive overtime pay for hours worked in excess and social security is included in their contracts.

“I started working in the factory two months ago,” she said. “It is hard but I am very happy to have this job, though this is completely different from what I was doing back home.”

Izdihar’s story would have not been possible a couple of years ago, when refugees were not allowed to engage in wage-earning activities and self-employment in Jordan.

But things changed in 2016.

Jordan, despite facing a grim 18 per cent unemployment rate itself, became the first country from the Arab region to facilitate issuing work permits to Syrian refugees. The deal came to fruition at last year’s Supporting Syria and the Region conference in London, when Jordan agreed to the terms in return for concessionary rates on international loans, trade benefits, and investments from donor countries to support the local economy.

Shortly after, Jordan and the EU penned the Simplified Rules of Origin Agreement. The pact allows the Kingdom to export 52 product categories to the EU bloc tariff-free for ten years. Conditions for applying the relaxed rules of origin are for companies to create jobs for Jordanians as well as to integrate a significant number of Syrian refugees into their workforce.

Some 650,000 Syrians are currently registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jordan. Two-thirds of them reside in host communities and live below the poverty line because years of displacement have consumed their assets and savings. Eking out a living in the informal market, Syrians outside the camps have often been subjected to poor working conditions, exploitation and the risk of eviction.

Formalizing their access to the job market was the first step to improve their lives. As of today, the labour ministry has issued and renewed 60,000 work permits to Syrian refugees, data from the International Labour Organization (ILO) shows, the bulk in agriculture, followed by construction and manufacturing. Five per cent of these work permits have been issued to Syrian refugee women.

A year ago, UNHCR joined forces with Better Work Jordan—a flagship programme of the ILO specialising in the garment sector and jointly run by the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group—to conduct a pilot project to match refugees with formal jobs in the garment sector.

Jordan’s $1.6 billion apparel industry is one of the country’s economic drivers, accounting for about a fifth of its total exports. Besides giving employment to Jordanians, thousands of people from South and South-East Asia also work in these plants. Women make up 70 per cent of the workforce.

A Syrian refugee and his daughters show their shelter in Za'atari refugee camp in northern Jordan in 2016. Photo Ala'a al Suhkni
A Syrian refugee and his daughters show their shelter in Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan in 2016. Photo Ala’a al Suhkni

While the project was useful as an advocacy tool to reduce administrative barriers for the issuance of work permits to refugees, very few Syrians found employment in the garment sector, said Laura Buffoni, Senior Livelihoods Officer for UNHCR Jordan. Hailing from a conservative background, women believe working long hours outside their homes is inappropriate.

But the situation seems to be slowly changing.

Buffoni said UNHCR successfully advocated to allow camp-dwelling refugees to legally work earlier this year, leading up to several months of preparations to set up a system capable of recording Syrians’ exit from Za’atari and train authorities on how to regulate the new flux of people in and outside the camp. The official said the increased mobility will help many refugees to earn a better living and gain work experience.

In August, the ILO coordinated with the labour ministry and the UN Refugee Agency to set up an employment office in Za’atari camp to counsel refugees on how to find jobs, access work permits in agriculture and construction while identifying those suitable for the manufacturing sector, and organize job fairs.

Meanwhile, UNHCR town hall meetings across the country have reached out to urban refugees for the past year providing information about the work permit scheme, vacancies and addressing prejudice and fears of women and men about working in factories in the industrial zones.

Some 120 Syrians attended the latest meeting in the northern city of Irbid in August and asked UNHCR officials to organise a new one soon.

According to UNHCR Livelihoods Assistant Rania Bakeer, around forty people registered at the end of the meeting to receive additional information about job openings in the manufacturing sector. Men have also grown more interested in the sector and its working conditions.

Representative of the ILO and BWJ also attended the event. BWJ’s Muna Ali told the audience about her programme’s role in the garment industry, including its strong cooperation with the government, unions, workers and factories.

“The main objective was to encourage Syrian refugees to join the manufacturing sector and reassure them about its safety,” Ali said. “Syrians are more aware about regulations today and started enquiring about more specific subjects like the minimum wage, something they were completely unaware of before.”

Izdihar also came from Za’atari to join the meeting, calling on other women to follow her path. “I am proud to earn money and help my family,” she said, adding that working conditions and the supervisors were good in the facility.

ILO employment expert Amal Bany Awad joined the discussion highlighting the safety of the country’s industrial zones.

“It is of paramount importance to dismantle the bad reputation that working in a plant has for people with a conservative background,” she said. “I reassured their families that supervisors are present inside the factories and required to immediately inform them if anything happens with their daughters.”

UNHCR’s Buffoni sees the Za’atari women who recently started to work outside the camp as tailors in factories as signs of empowerment and resilience. “They want to contribute to their family’s needs and have a bit more money to spend in the camp,” she said. “We can welcome this as a great, though still small, success.”

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