Many Syrian Bedouins who fled violence in their home country are working for under-the-table wages on Jordanian farms.
Mafraq, Jordan – Hussein al-Azziz makes his way through rows of slouching peach trees on a vast stretch of farmland in northern Jordan.
Their homeland in sight, Azziz and his fellow Syrian labourers remain just outside, braving the late summer heat to tend to Jordanian fields at peak harvest. Black plastic crates are filled with fruit and stacked into neat towers before being carried off by pick-up trucks.
“I’ve worked on farms since I arrived three years ago,” Azziz told Al Jazeera. “I never went to the camps. I came straight here [to the governorate of Mafraq].”
The 20-year-old Aleppo native had been doing this work illegally since 2013, before receiving a job permit through Jordan’s Ministry of Labour in early July. Though the country’s labour market has been open to Syrians for more than six months, many refugees have only recently started to come forward.
“We feared the UNHCR [United Nations refugee agency] would cut the food coupons if we got permits,” Azziz told Al Jazeera, referring to the World Food Programme’s initiative to deliver food compensation to families in need. “It used to be hard for me to work because I was constantly threatened by the authorities, but everything has become more comfortable. We stopped being afraid.”
Obtaining his work permit was a simple process, Azziz said: He had bloodwork done through the Jordanian Ministry of Health, and then brought the results and a photo ID to his employer, who subsequently obtained the permit from the Ministry of Labour.
“I really like this work, especially now that what I do is legal,” Azziz said.
The formal workforce has been almost completely closed to Syrians since they began fleeing to Jordan after the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011.
In February, however, Jordan responded to international pressure over the refugee flow into Europe by pledging to create jobs for 200,000 Syrians in the coming years.
In exchange, the European Union drafted a new trade agreement with Jordan – later signed in July – allowing tariff-free export to Europe of several Jordanian-made products, ranging from garments and chemicals to Dead Sea beauty products. For employers to benefit from the deal, Syrians would have to comprise 15 percent of their workforce within two years, and 25 percent after three.
Meanwhile, a government decree, announced in April, offered a three-month exemption for Syrians from the standard work permit costs of 300 to 500 Jordanian dinars ($420 to $700), leaving only a nominal processing fee of 40 dinars ($56).
The policy was extended for another three months in July and will be revisited again next month – yet the path ahead remains fraught with challenges.
Unemployment in the resource-scant kingdom reached nearly 15 percent during the first quarter of 2016, the highest rate since 2008, according to labour ministry data. Competing for work are some 650,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, part of more than 1.2 million Syrian nationals in the country.
Most of us have made the choice to stay in the region, and the work programme allowed us to trust our decision. Having the work permit allows me to stay in Jordan as I wanted to, close to Syria.
In the past year, more than 26,000 Syrians have obtained work permits, most during the last three months – up from a labour ministry estimate showing fewer than 5,000 people working legally before Jordan’s labour market opening in February.
Maha Kattaa, the Jordan-based coordinator for the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, said the uptick was an encouraging sign for the ILO and partner aid agencies leading initiatives to integrate refugees into the country’s formal workforce.
Kattaa, who has spoken with Syrians in farms across the country, learned that in the beginning, many were concerned about obtaining a work permit because it required them to register with a single employer, meaning they could be left jobless at the end of that farm’s harvest season. When she relayed these concerns to local farming cooperatives, their leaders proposed alternatives.
“We asked farm owners to make work permits for Syrians in the cooperative’s name so that the worker is eligible for all the farms within this 36-member coalition,” Mansour al-Fawaz, one of the cooperatives’ directors, told Al Jazeera. Since this change was enacted in April, nearly 1,000 permits have been handed out each month in Mafraq, up from just 10 in April.
The February deal announced by Amman aimed to attract foreign investors to Jordan while employing tens of thousands of Syrians, deterring them from leaving for Europe. But despite encouraging signs in the farming industry, leaders of other sectors say the response from Syrians has been underwhelming.
In April, the ILO and its partner organisation, Better Work Jordan, teamed up with UNHCR to launch a programme to integrate an initial 2,000 Syrians into the country’s textile industry. Yet, less than 50 have entered the sector so far, said programme manager Tareq Abu Qaoud.
“Today, I only have four Syrians working in my factory,” Sanal Kumar, the owner Jordan’s largest garment producer, Classic Apparel, told Al Jazeera. “The UNHCR told me they had 2,000 people ready to go, but nobody turned up [to apply for work].”
Garment operations like Classic Apparel are currently required to have Jordanians make up a quarter of their workforce, with migrants accounting for the rest. Abu Qaoud said it is unclear how Syrians will fit into this structure.
“Syrians will not be a replacement for migrant workers, and the government is not interested in Syrians replacing Jordanians in this sector,” he told Al Jazeera, noting that factory owners agreed to pay Syrians 190 dinars ($270), the same wage given to Jordanian workers, but plans stalled when conservative Syrian women were unwilling to enter the factory alone, or were restricted by children.
“No one has much money,” Reem al-Ahmad, a 19-year-old Syrian employee at one of Classic Apparel’s factories, told Al Jazeera. “But it’s not normal for a Syrian woman to go out of her home and do this kind of work.”
Ahmad, who fled Syria with her family in 2013, said that before joining Classic Apparel’s 16,000-worker operation, she found informal jobs close to home or relied on male family members – a prospect that became more difficult after her father made the journey to Europe.
“I need to make money for myself, and I also have to help relatives,” she said with a shrug. “I need to do it for them.”
Syrians currently comprise some 11 percent of the country’s workforce, according to labour ministry figures – up from the two percent estimated before the February announcement. But UNHCR spokesperson Aoife McDonnell noted that introducing Syrians into the formal workforce is not a fix-all.
“Regularising refugee work has been an extremely important step, but expanding the number of job opportunities available to Jordanians and Syrians should also be a priority,” McDonnell told Al Jazeera.
Back at the farm, Azziz tossed a plump peach between his gloved hands.
Since last year, he said, two groups of friends headed for Europe have called and asked him to join them. Both times, he refused.
“Most of us have made the choice to stay in the region, and the work programme allowed us to trust our decision,” he said. “Having the work permit allows me to stay in Jordan as I wanted to, close to Syria.”