The context and challenges
The entry of Syrians into the Jordanian labour market has exacerbated an already challenging situation. The labour market is now comprised of three distinct groups – Jordanians, migrant workers and refugees –but it hasn’t always been this way. Until the 1970s Jordanians worked in all occupations and all sectors. Starting in the 1970s, many educated Jordanians left to work in the Gulf. At the same time, the new wealth allowed Jordan to bring in increasing numbers of migrant workers. The number of migrant workers tripled in the past 15 years,1 with correspondingly large impacts on Jordanian workers and on the economy as a whole.2 Today, many Jordanians, work or aspire to work in the public sector. Within the private sector, many occupations have become dominated by specific nationalities of migrant workers and the informal sector comprises a significant share of the economy.3 Adding to this already complicated labour market, large numbers of Syrian refugees have arrived in Jordan over the past five years. In an effort to avoid a lost generation of refugees, dependent on handouts and disenfranchised, the Government of Jordan is allowing Syrians to participate in the labour market.
The three groups have important distinctions, but also important commonalities. Jordanians are on average more highly educated than either of the other groups and this has a strong impact on their expectations. Nevertheless, a large share of unemployed Jordanians have no more education than do migrant workers. Much of the segmentation is based not on education or initial skills but rather on nationality. For example, most Egyptian construction workers entered the sector in Jordan with no prior experience. Despite the perception that Egyptians bring special skills, Egyptians have no vocational training advantage over Jordanians. For their part, Syrians have less formal education than do Jordanians or migrant workers on average. However, the education averages mask significant variation as well as the fact that many Syrians have marketable skills that are not reflected in their formal education.
In addition to education and skill issues, there are important distinctions and commonalities based on family situation. The majority of migrant workers have come to Jordan alone and on a temporary basis, for the express purpose of working and maximizing the remittances they send back to their home countries. Jordanian workers on the other hand, view their employment as a permanent, integral part of their lives and, for this reason, aim for career development and a balance between working hours and family life.4 In terms of family situation, Syrians are more similar to Jordanians than they are to migrant workers: Syrians need to balance employment with family responsibilities and spend their earnings within Jordan.
The labour market situation of Jordanians is very much tied to the presence and situation of migrant workers and Syrian refugees. There are about 1.4 million Jordanians currently working plus another 210,000 unemployed.5 Although precise numbers are not available, the Ministry of Labour recently suggested that there may be as many as 1.4 million non-Jordanians working – about the same as the number of Jordanians.6 In this context, incorporating 200,000 Syrian workers may seem like a relatively small incremental change but, in fact, adds to an enormous pre-existing challenge.
The Government’s current labour market challenges can be articulated in relation to the three groups: (i) How to increase Jordanian employment through nationalization of the labour market? (ii)
How to ensure decent working conditions for all workers, including migrant workers? And (iii) How to incorporate Syrian refugees without displacing Jordanian workers? Because all three groups are present in significant numbers, it is inevitable that the groups impact each other. For this reason, the challenges for any group – including Jordanians – must be addressed within the broader context of the entire labour market in Jordan.