Can Jordan get a million Syrians into work? | Editor's Choice | Ammon News

Can Jordan get a million Syrians into work?

[12/14/2017 7:00:30 AM]

AMMONNEWS - Every day at 6am, Fatima waits outside the gates of Jordan’s largest refugee camp for a bus that takes her and 18 other Syrian refugee women to work in a factory an hour’s drive away.

It is the first job the 37-year-old mother of five from Damascus has ever had. Fatima has been mute since birth. She uses an improvised sign language to explain that her husband is lazy and spends his days smoking in their makeshift home in the vast Zaatari refugee camp, which houses 80,000 people near the border with Syria.

The women’s commute takes them to a cheerful modern factory that is at the forefront of a crucial economic experiment in Jordan, which is trying to find work for vast numbers of Syrians driven into the country by the war across the border.

The Jerash Garments & Fashions Manufacturing Company, a factory with 2,800 employees, is run by Oryana Awaisheh, a Jordanian who quit teaching to move into the business. Awaisheh is among the pioneers trying to take up the opportunity of the Jordan compact — an international aid experiment under which Jordan has been offered concessional loans and preferential trade terms in return for opening its labour market to some of the estimated 1.3 million refugees who fled there during the war in Syria.

There has been strong support for the compact from the UK and the EU, where politicians see it as a way of persuading the millions of Syrians taking refuge in neighbouring countries to stay in the region.

Awaisheh set out to hire refugees as soon as she heard it would give her factory access to EU markets without normal tariff barriers. But the deal is only open to businesses that can meet the requirement of having a 15% Syrian refugee workforce.

“From where will I bring 500 Syrians? They were not accepting to work here,” she said. Indeed, initially Awaisheh found it was impossible to get any refugees with the right skills who would work in a factory.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was given the job of drumming up interest among Syrian refugees in the camps. But Dina Khayyat, vice-chair of the Jordan Garment Accessories & Textile Exporters Association, watched as the early enthusiasm hit a wall.

Few Syrians showed up and those who did had little interest in working in factories. Ultimately, no Syrians were hired.

“It was not a success story,” Khayyat said. It was difficult to convince the Syrians to work in factories, as they were often earning better money in other sectors such as construction or in restaurants, which required less commitment.

The garment sector also hires a largely female workforce. But many refugees in Jordan – and especially Zaatari – came from Syria’s southern governorate of Daraa, a socially conservative agricultural area in which most women did not work outside the home.

Syria had a garment industry, but it was centred on the northern city of Aleppo and most refugees from this area made their way to Turkey, not Jordan.

Awaisheh did not give up. In June, new rules brought a fresh opportunity. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) told her that the factory could qualify to export to the EU tariff-free by meeting the Syrian worker quota on a single production line, rather than the whole factory. At the same time, new rules allowed Syrians, like Fatima, living in camps to leave for work.

Awaisheh spent two months visiting Zaatari, meeting women and attending job fairs. She invited refugees to tour the factory, set up a daycare centre and arranged transport.

By November she had an all-female production line of 85 workers, including 19 women from Zaatari, and the factory qualified to export to Europe.

Workers like Fatima do not come for free. The bus costs the factory $210 per employee per month, but Awaisheh said it was worth it for the chance they brought with them to export to the European market.

“It was like mission impossible,” she said. “It was difficult but, thank God, we got it.” She has yet to conquer what may be the bigger challenge, which is finding buyers in the EU for the factory’s output.

Whether Awaisheh’s success can be replicated at scale remains to be seen. More than 80% of the estimated 1.3 million Syrians in Jordan live in towns not camps, and the minimum-wage jobs in the garment sector do not cover the needs of urban refugees with bills to pay.

These kinds of details were largely ignored by the framers of the Jordan compact, signed in London in February 2016. Its terms included $1.7bn in grants over three years to support infrastructure projects; a 10-year exemption from an EU tariff barrier for producers in Jordan who met an employment quota of Syrian refugees; and a commitment from the government of Jordan to create 200,000 “job opportunities” for Syrians.

So far 77,000 work permits have been issued, of which 39,000 are current. Susan Razzaz, a former World Bank economist and an expert on the labour market in Jordan, foresees a tougher 2018 in terms of achieving targets as the government runs out of black economy jobs to formalise.

She said the real challenge would lie in attracting new investment, as “the truth of the matter is that there has been no job creation.”.

Alexander Betts, an academic and former head of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford, whose research on the economic integration of refugees in Uganda and advocacy on a Jordan deal has been influential, admitted the Jordan compact had had a “mixed record” in practice.

“I think the achievements in Jordan are positive albeit that they haven’t yet reached the initial targets,” he said. “And I think it’s an extraordinary pilot from which there will be many lessons about how to engage business, about how to create jobs for refugees and it’s having an impact on policymaking around the world.”


Much of the focus in the deal was placed on creating jobs in special economic zones such as Al-Dulayl, north of Jordan’s capital, Amman. A strip of squat, dusty buildings, it churns out Ralph Lauren blazers, Perry Ellis chinos and black smoke.

To international policymakers, places such as Al-Dulayl seem like a quick win: underutilised industrial parks near refugee camps crammed with a surplus labour force.

Qazi Pervaiz was one of those who embraced the new prospects. Growing up in the border regions of Pakistan, he developed an affinity for refugees after befriending Afghans who arrived in his village fleeing the Soviets. He remembers seeing people who once held jobs in industry and government reduced to living in tents.

“I know refugees,” he said. “It’s very difficult for them to live in the camps.” When Pervaiz worked as the human resources manager at Apparel Concepts garment factory in Al-Dulayl, he took part in a pilot project to bring 2,000 Syrians to work in the factories.

Jumana, a 28-year-old from Ghouta, outside Damascus, was one of only a handful of Syrians who have taken garments jobs. She arrived in Jordan with her family in 2014 with not much more than $60 between them. Without friends or relatives in Jordan’s cities, they settled in the countryside.

She tried working on a farm but had trouble getting paid. She was living near Al-Dulayl when she learned from a post on UNHCR’s Facebook page that Syrians were allowed to work in factories.

When she inquired, Pervaiz hired her straight away. Jumana now works inserting fabric into the waistband of trousers to stiffen them. A month later, she brought two of her cousins to join her, but her brothers will not follow because they earn more working as handymen.

“The work is good,” she said. “They treat us well. They didn’t take one dinar from my salary.”

The recruiting drive has since widened to take in the estimated 140,000 Syrian refugees living in camps. Zaatari, Jordan’s biggest refugee camp, held its first jobs fair in October. Pervaiz attended, hoping to find more Syrian women like Jumana. He left disappointed: “I didn’t see a single female.”

A year on from the signing of the EU trade agreement, Pervaiz has welcomed more European delegations and foreign NGOs than he has refugees. Despite his efforts, he currently employs just four Syrians. But he remains sanguine. “We are on the right track, we just need to open the gate.”

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