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One man’s curse is another man’s blessing: How Egyptian guest labour suffers from Syria crisis

By Bernard Ellouk - Aug 23,2017 - Last updated at Aug 23,2017

Estimates from Tamkeen and the Jordan Strategic Forum place the number of Egyptians in Jordan anywhere between 500,000 to over a million (Photo by Fares Al Abed)

AMMAN — When Hamdin Najdi immigrated to Jordan from Egypt, he did so on an agricultural work permit, and like many agricultural workers almost immediately sought a way out of the brutal, hot grind that is working in Jordan’s farming industry. 

Najdi soon landed a job at a restaurant in Amman. But his employer would eventually revoke his work permit over a disagreement. 

Lacking valid papers, Najdi would be subsequently arrested by the authorities.

They allegedly placed him in administrative detention. Though the law states that administrative detention should last for only 24 hours, Najdi stayed in jail for more than one year.  His detention ending only after he went on a hunger strike, he said.  

Mohammad Abdul Rahman has on the other hand been quite lucky. While his employment prospects in Egypt were terrible, he was able to obtain a work permit and make his way to Jordan where he secured a job as a cook.  

Though Abdul Rahman would lose that job, throwing his employment situation and migrant residency into jeopardy, he would soon find another. First as a private chef to a diplomat then as the head of the cafeteria at an embassy. 

Both men were drawn to Jordan by the prospects only one of them could realise. Najdi would eventually be deported, while Rahman stayed in the country. 

That prospect is something that has grown increasingly out of reach for Egyptian migrant workers, said Tharwat Dewedar, president of the committee of Jordanian-Egyptian friendship, a community group that represents Egyptian migrant workers. 

Over the last three years a wave of deportation and rule changes have sought not only to limit the amount of Egyptian migrant workers coming into the country, but deport large numbers of Egyptian migrant workers out of Jordan. 

“We are seeing a huge campaign to expel Egyptians,” said Linda Kalash of Tamkeen, a migrant worker rights non-government organisation.

Labour activists at Tamkeen, and the Phenix Centre, a labour studies think tank, say that two events have spurred on the wave of deportations and rule changes aimed at shrinking the migrant worker community — the Jordan Compact and the Syrian civil war. 

 

The refugee dilemma 

 

There was much to be jubilant about after the government signed the Jordan Compact in 2016. 

In an effort to stave off the immigration influx due to the Syrian civil war, the international community agreed to give Jordan $1.7 billion in grants, low-interest loans and aid, which along with tariff-free access to the EU market was meant to help grow the Jordanian economy. 

In return, Jordan agreed to provide 200,000 work permits to its 1.2 million Syrian refuges. 

But slower than expected economic growth, and a lack of expected investment in the business sector has kept the unemployment rate at a pesky 15.8 per cent and led to fewer than expected jobs being created, said Ahmed Awad, the director of the Phenix Centre. 

As a result, the Jordanian government has failed to meet last year’s target of 50,000 new work permits for Syrians, said Hala Zawat, CEO of the Jordan Strategy Forum, an economic development think tank. 

Government data on migrant workers from the Ministry of Labour, which is responsible for giving out the permits, shows that only a little over 28,000 new work permits were given to Syrians in 2016, roughly half of the government’s pledge. 

“This has put a lot of pressure on the government,” Awad said.

To meet its obligation to its European partners, the government has had to find a way to provide the 200,000 work permits and thus 200,000 jobs.

In lieu of a stagnate economy, it has turned its eye on its large Egyptian migrant population, said Kalash. 

 

The campaign 

 

Egyptians have for decades been Jordan’s largest demographic of migrant workers. Yet, there is no official tally of the exact size of the Egyptian community in Jordan given that a significant portion of them work unregistered. 

Estimates from Tamkeen and the Jordan Strategic Forum place the number of Egyptians in Jordan anywhere between 500,000 to over a million, of which a majority come to Jordan on a one year long agricultural work permit, said Kalash of Tamkeen.

Given that agriculture is seasonal and thus likely to last only five months out of the year, many Egyptians choose to finish the reminder of their work permit working in other sectors, particularly construction, said Hala Zawat of the Jordan Strategy Forum. 

This has for decades been an acceptable practice as nothing barred migrants from switching employers on their work permit if they did not run afoul of other rules, said Dewedar.

But in 2016, the Ministry of Labour in one of its first set of changes aimed at the Egyptian migrant communityrestricted the ability of migrants to switch employers, which was common amongst Egyptian migrant workers in agriculture, said Dewedar. 

In addition, the ministry barred all migrants on a one year permit from leaving the country for any length of time longer than 90 days. 

The impact of this being that migrants who would otherwise wait out the remainder of the one year permit in their native country were prevented from doing so,because to leave Jordan for longer than 90 days meant that a worker would also lose his permit, said Kalash.  

Nor could migrants take up another job for the remaining time left on their work permit as the 2016 restriction on switching employers barred them from doing so.  

To get to Jordan, most migrants pay anywhere between JD800 to JD1200, said Kalash — a cost that includes the price of the work permit and transportation. While, the permit and transportation is to be theoretically shouldered by an employer it is common practice for a worker to front that cost himself, said Kalash. 

“This often means they come to Jordan indebted “said Kalash. Most workers are forced to borrow the funds from friends and relatives, and so can ill afford to spend seven months without work, she adds. 

“They have been put in a position [because of this restriction] where they almost have to seek illegal work,” Dewedar said. 

A consequence of these rule changes, argued Dewedar, is that workers are now more likely to break the rules and thus be more subject to deportation. 

In addition to new restrictions, the Ministry of Labour has also removed the ability of migrants to challenge or seek recourse if they are arrested for a permit violation. 

Before 2017, any worker caught with an invalid work permit could pay a fee to stop their deportation.

For every day that the migrant had an invalid work permit they could pay JD1.5. 

Starting in 2016 the Ministry of Labour begin actively charging migrants for every day on an invalid work permit, without limits, argued Dewedar. This could mean that some migrant workers would pay fees worth thousands.  

Prior to 2016, it was rare that the fee would exceed one year’s worth of time on an invalid permit, said Dewedar. 

As of 2017, the Ministry of Labour once again changed its policy.  

Migrants are now no longer given an opportunity to pay a fine, but are immediately deported without trial. 

As of January, the Ministry of Labour has also added an additional JD500 fee that must be paid before migrants are even allowed to board a plane out of the country. 

“What [the Ministry of Labour] is doing now is simply a violation of international conventions,” said Kalash.  

In stark contrast to Egyptians and other migrant workers, Syrians in Jordan have fared very well over the last couple years. 

As of this year, Syrian work permit fees have dropped to zero, while other migrant workers have seen their fees rise from JD150 to JD600. 

While, the Ministry of Labour has limited the flexibility of where and for who Egyptian and other migrants can work for, it announced last month a flexible permit for Syrians that would allow them to switch jobs, employers and locations without restraint. 

The Ministry of Labour has also been active in promoting Syrian labour, pressuring employers in agriculture and construction sectors to consider hiring Syrians before Egyptians, claimed Awad. 

Given that a significant share of Egyptian migrants work in agriculture and construction, a decline in the population of Egyptians would mean jobs open for Syrians, argued Kalash.

Government labour data shows that the Ministry of Labour’s efforts to reduce the Egyptian population have borne fruit. The estimated total population of registered Egyptian migrant workers has remained steady every year since 2006, at roughly 190,000 to 200,000. 

But in 2016 registered Egyptian workers numbered 170,065, a decrease of roughly 25,000 from the previous year. 

Last year was the first time in over a decade that the registered Egyptian population has ever dropped by more than 10,000.

The only other demographic to go up significantly from 2015-2016 were Syrians. 

The number of registered Syrian workers went from 5,307 to 33,485 between 2015 and 2016. 

This amounted to an increase of 28,718, roughly equal to the drop in registered Egyptians in the same period. 

For the Egyptian migrant community, the shadow of Hamdin Najdi’s case still looms large. Adding to it the recent spate of new restrictions and deportations has put them on edge.

Migrants like Abdul Rahman now worry that any minor violation will result in him being either jailed or immediately deported. 

Numerous requests for comment from the Ministry of Labour about these issues were not returned.

But Zawat argued that the reason the ministry has added many of these new restrictions is due to it trying to deal simultaneously with the Jordan Compact, a large unregistered migrant population and a work permit system designed entirely around migrants and not refugees. 

“It is not to government’s intention to be revoking work permits and expelling Egyptians without cause,” Zawat said. 

The Ministry of Labour is trying to find a way to work in refugees who will stay in the country for the foreseeable future, but all they have is a work permit system designed for temporary workers, she added. 

This was a similar argument extended by Patrick Daru, senior skills and employability specialist and coordinator for Amman Decent Work Country Programme of the International Labour Organisation, which partners with the ministry in addressing work related issues for Syrians.  

“It is not the aim of the government to target any community, but to try to provide work for those in great need,” Daru said. 

“Still, the real question is who comes second after Jordanians; the government will have to choose,” Zawat said. 

Some migrants feel Jordan has taken its pick. 

Aya Alber contributed to this report

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