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Work Permits and Employment of Syrian Refugees in Jordan: Towards Formalising the Work of Syrian Refugees


Executive summary

In 2015, the ILO, in partnership with the Oslo-based FAFO Institute for Applied International Studies, carried out an assessment on the impact of the Syrian refugee influx on the Jordanian labour market. The assessment provided a better understanding of the employment profile of Syrian refugees in Jordan.

At the time of the assessment, Syrian refugees in general did not have the legal right to work in Jordan, however, 10 per cent of those who worked were able to obtain a work permit for various exceptional reasons. The rest of the Syrian refugee workforce was working in an expanding informal economy, characterised by low and declining wages, long work days, and poor working conditions, including lack of work contracts. This was not only unfavourable for Syrian workers, but also for Jordanian workers who suffered from pre-existing decent work deficits that were further exacerbated by increased competition for jobs with Syrian refugees in an unregulated market.

Since the 2015 impact assessment, a number of policy and legislative reforms have been made concerning the employment of Syrian refugees and Jordanians. On February 4 2016, the United Kingdom, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations hosted a Syria Donor Conference in London, where members of the international community came together and pledged their support for Syria and the region. Through the London Conference, Jordan secured pledges for $1.7 billion in grants and concessional financial support for its Syria refugee (national) response plan, as well as pledges to simplify the rules of origin to export to the European market.

The plan, known as the Jordan Compact, placed job creation for Syrian refugees and members of the Jordanian host communities at the centre of its vision. The Jordan Compact is also anchored in Jordan’s growth agenda and aims to turn the Syrian refugee crisis into a development opportunity. However, it is also clear that the 200,000 jobs to be created for Syrian refugees under the Jordan Compact will be secured through the formalisation of existing jobs and the decrease of reliance on migrant workers.

In line with pledges made at the London Conference, a new trade agreement between Jordan and the EU was signed, which allows for a relaxation of the rules of origin. Jordanian companies are required to hire Syrians and ensure that they make up 15 per cent of the total workforce of each factory to benefit from new terms of trade under this agreement. At the same time, companies must comply with pre-existing national regulations aimed at the “Jordanisation” of the workforce, which include having sectors and occupations closed to non-Jordanians, having sector-specific quotas for Jordanian workers, and in some sectors, issuing the maximum number of work permits per company.

To help deliver on its commitments to generate more jobs for Jordanians and Syrian refugees, the government of Jordan has amended work permit procedures and regulations and has agreed to issue permits for Syrian refugees free of charge for a set time period. As a result of these and other measures, between December 2015 and December 2016, the number of Syrians with work permits grew from approximately 4,000 to 40,000.

However, while the increase in work permits has been a notable success, it is also important to understand (a) what is the likely uptake of work permits in the near future; (b) whether work permits are beneficial for Syrian workers; (c) what policies and programmes need to be amended in order to support a work permit system that is beneficial for Syrian and Jordanian workers alike.
These, and other important questions, will be the focus of this impact assessment.

The assessment tests five core assumptions regarding work permits, namely that:

  1. Procedural difficulties in obtaining work permits for Syrian refugees limits their uptake by workers and their employers;

  2. Work permits act as an impediment to labour mobility in sectors where workers are linked to a single employer;

  3. Work permits increase the risk of labour exploitation where workers are linked to a single employer;

  4. Work permits improve social protection coverage for Syrian workers; and

  5. Work permits are associated with better working conditions because they imply that workers have accessed a formal job, which is monitored by labour inspectors.

These core assumptions are tested through qualitative and quantitative data generated from 450 questionnaires completed by Syrian workers in three different sectors; services, agriculture and construction in the governorates of Irbid, Mafraq, Amman and Zarqa. Two focus group discussions were also held with female Syrian agricultural workers to better understand the challenges and opportunities they are confronted with.

What follows is a mixed methods analysis of survey data and focus group discussions that aims to answer the main research question: how have work permit reforms impacted the employment of Syrian workers in Jordan? The assessment provides recommendations on further reforms required to meet Jordan’s objective of employing 200,000 Syrian workers, while promoting decent work opportunities for both Syrian and Jordanian workers.