By Dina Mansour-Ille and Emma Samman

Syrian refugees across the Middle East and North Africa face very challenging circumstances. In 2015, UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCS) concluded that eighty-six percent of these refugees in Jordanian host communities (i.e., outside camps) were living below the poverty line (Ritchie 2017). Relatively few working-age refugees are in paid work—twenty-eight percent overall but just seven percent of women (Stave and Hillesund 2015: 43). This is a result of legal prohibitions on their employment, a lack of jobs, and—for women—additional gendered barriers relating to family responsibilities, poor transportation infrastructure, discrimination, and fear of harassment. To address these restrictions with the aim of opening economic opportunities, the international community and Jordanian government recently agreed to the “Jordan Compact.”

In this article, we draw principally on a forthcoming research report (September 2017) collaboratively conducted between the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). This report explores avenues for work that are not constrained by the local economy and labor market, and could potentially overcome the social and cultural restrictions affecting refugee women. We argue that while the Jordan Compact marks an important step forward, it is insufficiently attentive to the constraints that refugee women face. The Compact aims to provide incentives to the Jordanian government to integrate Syrian refugees into the country’s labor market in return for investment, which has led to a renewed focus on the economic opportunities available for both refugees and Jordanian nationals. A thorough understanding of the Compact and its impact requires an in-depth analysis of the Syrian refugee presence as well as the broader dynamics of the Jordanian political economy as well.  In this article, we limit ourselves to some findings on some limitations of the compact and some preliminary reflections on possible alternatives for paid work such as the nascent ‘gig’ economy. Our analysis highlights several broader challenges including a lack of regulation, irregular internet connectivity, societal and family restrictions, and limited freedom of association. We argue for the need to understand better what gig work offers in practice and how to enact safeguards where these are needed.

What Does the Jordan Compact Propose? 

In February 2016, representatives from the Jordanian government, development partners, and international and non-governmental organizations came together at the London conference, “Supporting Syria and the Region,” to explore ways to create jobs and investment opportunities for countries most affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. One resulting agreement was dubbed the Jordan Compact. More than one year on, the Compact has already secured 923.6 million US dollars of contracted loans of which, over 834 million US dollars are dedicated to budget support and 89 million to development projects (Petra 2017). In return for this concessional finance, the Jordanian government agreed to facilitate the integration of Syrian refugees into the country’s labour market.

In 2014, only 6,000 of the 160,000 Syrian refugees estimated to be working in Jordan (less than half a percent) had a work permit (SNAP 2014). Those working in the informal economy, which is thought to employ some forty-four percent of the Jordanian labor force (UNDP 2010), work “under hazardous conditions and low pay” (Verme et. al. 2016, p. 50). As a result, a significant component of the Compact was dedicated to “measures that could in the coming years provide about 200,000 job opportunities for Syrian refugees, contributing to the Jordanian economy without competing with Jordanians for jobs” (Jordan Compact 2016, p. 2). This meant easing barriers to acquiring work permits, such as high fees and the requirement that Syrians produce their original identity documents, which they may have lost en route, as well as efforts to formalize existing businesses and set up new ones (ILO 2015UNHCR 2016).

But despite the Compact, many jobs and professions remain fully or partially closed to foreigners, including Syrian refugees, by law—including hairdressing, driving and certain professions in agriculture, education and construction. In several of these areas, Syrians are likely to have a comparative advantage—for example, in 2009, fifteen percent of employment in Syria was in agriculture compared to only three percent in Jordan (Verme et. al. 2016).

More importantly, gender disparities remain entrenched. The government pledged to issue 50,000 work permits to Syrian refugees in 2016. While the government came through on its pledge as of 5 May 2017, only five percent of the 50,909 permits issued went to women (Khatta 2017).

Therefore, although the Compact marks an important step forward in identifying solutions and highlighting labour market issues, more work is needed (see IRC 2017b).  In particular, the compact makes no mention of promoting gender equality in accessing the labour market nor does it provide any guidelines on overcoming the barriers that may specifically hinder women’s employment. Our analysis suggests these gendered barriers are sizeable.

What Constraints Do Women Face?

 A 2016 survey revealed that most Syrian refugee women in Jordan expressed a desire to work (UN Women 2017). While those with more education were more likely to be employed, our research showed that education alone does not sufficiently explain the low share of Syrian women in the Jordanian labour market.

In focus group discussions conducted as part of our research in Amman, Irbid, Mafraq, and Al-Ramtha in March and April 2017, the major factors that Syrian women refugees stated as impeding their access to the labour market and restricting their choices were social/cultural and logistical.

Duties in the home toward families and children are a key priority, one that restricts women taking up long working hours or commutes. Finding home-based work, according to our informants, is particularly attractive given such barriers. Interestingly, many women spoke of their own home-based projects (e.g., knitting and selling clothes and make-up, and hairdressing, among others), which they promoted via social media. Home-based work has its own set of well-documented challenges—including isolation, poor working conditions and difficulty organizing (Chen 2014)—but nonetheless women’s own perspectives need to be accounted for when considering sustainable livelihood options.

Transportation, especially for women residing outside the capital of Amman, is also a serious impediment to accepting job offers. This puts them at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts. As one participant explained, “jobs are more available to men than women, because men can work from anywhere, and no one controls them or controls their opinion.” Moreover, greater mobility allows men to form larger networks of friends and contacts, who can assist them in finding and securing a job. In addition, the poor transportation infrastructure is associated with gender-based harassment, which deters women from looking for jobs outside their vicinity.

Digital connectivity is another challenge. Previous research shows that smartphone access in Jordan is widespread, albeit with a marked gender divide (Pew Research Centre 2016GSMA 2016). Yet among refugees, access to mobile Internet appears to be intermittent at best. Moreover, some participants in our focus groups explained that their husbands prohibited or restricted their internet use. Others felt that Syrian refugee women might not have the knowledge to use the internet to find work.

Although a major barrier to accessing work opportunities, none of the participants mentioned the lack of a work permit as a concern and a barrier to their integration in the job market. Instead, their focus is on gendered barriers to accessing the labour market. 

What is Needed Next?

The Jordan Compact has prompted a welcome and renewed focus on how jobs can be created in the country for Syrian refugees, as well as for Jordanian nationals. In the light of this need for work, and the gendered barriers that affect women’s participation in the labour market, our study explored the feasibility of the newly-emerging gig economy as a source of economic opportunity for Syrian refugee women.

The gig economy, which is still very nascent in Jordan, operates through online platforms that bring together workers and purchasers of their services globally. Two main categories fall under the term gig economy: “crowdwork” (i.e., tasks commissioned and carried out virtually, via the Internet) and “on-demand” (i.e., tasks which are carried out locally, with the service purchaser and provider based in physical proximity). Only a handful of participants in our focus groups understood the meaning of the gig economy and what it can offer. One implication is that the gig economy is not yet established enough to offer large numbers of jobs or for its impacts nor implications to be fully understood.

Our analysis suggests that the gig economy could overcome many of the gendered barriers women face in Jordan—for example, the use of online platforms can help in finding clients in Jordan and in other countries; it provides a market for home-based work, including types of microwork in which many Syrian refugee women are already active; and in principle, it can offer greater flexibility in choosing and scheduling work.

However, turning the gig economy into an opportunity for Syrian refugee women will need focused action. Efforts will be needed to raise awareness about it among potential workers, to train interested job-seekers to find the platforms best suited to their backgrounds, and to regulate this type of work under Jordanian Labour Law to afford workers necessary protections and safeguards. This means that the government would have a substantial role to play in an area that is so far in Jordan, as elsewhere, characterised by a lack of clarity around applicable labour regulation or its enforcement. There is also a need to enable refugees to associate freely and to promote digital connectivity, especially for women.

The Jordan Compact has been hailed as an opportunity to put in place a “new paradigm” to benefit both Jordanians and Syrian refugees. Yet its lack of reference to the social and cultural considerations that may hinder women’s access to the job market is a large omission. Studying and understanding those limitations will allow devising solutions that can truly turn a crisis into opportunities for development for both women and men in Jordan and beyond.

[This article is published jointly in partnership with Jadaliyya.]