Ahlam Alterawi from the General Trade Union of Workers in Textile and Clothing Industries in Jordan says unions have been trying to integrate Syrian refugees into the workforce.

Interview: How Jordan’s unions are helping Syrian refugees


Jordan is a safe haven for more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, of whom 80 per cent are living in the country’s cities. 

However, this month the World Food Programme was forced to stop food aid to almost 230,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan as it can no longer afford to feed them. Another 200,000 refugees in the country have had their aid cut in half. This has left some Syrian families living on less than 50 cents a day.  

Speaking at IndustriALL Global Union’s Women World Conference in Vienna last week, Ahlam Alterawi from the General Trade Union of Workers in Textile Garment and Clothing Industries (JTGCU) explained what unions have been doing to integrate refugees into the workforce…  

How have trade unions in Jordan been assisting Syrian refugees?

When Syrian refugees started arriving in Jordan four years ago, we helped to provide practical relief such as food and blankets. But they couldn’t find work without paying for a permit and residency, which was a cost they couldn’t afford. So they came to us for help. At the same time, some businesses asked us for support so that they could use the skilled Syrian labour rather than migrant workers from countries such as Bangladesh.

At the end of 2013, our union and other unions went together with the Jordanian business association to the Ministry of Labour to ask if skilled Syrians could join the labour market. The Labour Ministry agreed and also reduced the cost of a work permit for Syrian refugees by 50 per cent.

How else has Jordan been indirectly affected by violence in the region?

As well as the large number of Syrian refugees in the country, more and more Iraqis are also coming to Jordan. This has been a problem for our country. We have had to decrease our use of water, oil and electricity. We have to import more food, more energy for electricity, and more oil to cover all that is needed for all these people that are in Jordan. Our population used to be around six  million. Now we are nearer nine or ten million. For this reason, they have started building refugee camps in the desert and all the empty places on the border with Saudi Arabia.

How have refugees affected the labour market in Jordan?

We still have thousands of Syrians who cannot join the labour market. However, there are large numbers of Syrian refugees living in Jordan’s cities. Many are young and skilled in sectors such as food services, textile and garment, and the construction industry. For this reason employers and owners of some companies prefer to take on Syrians because they are more skilled than the young Jordanians. Also, the refugees are prepared to accept lower wages, which are supplemented by support from the UN. Local Jordanians can’t afford to accept such low salaries.

What is being done to help local Jordanian workers?

Now international organizations are putting together a programme to include Syrian refugees in the workplace without it having an adverse affect on local women and young people in the labour market. By training the Jordanians, giving them skills to work, side-by-side, with Syrian workers so that Jordanians don’t lose their jobs, especially educated people. We have a high percentage of well-educated women and young people with university degrees and good qualifications.

You also have over a million migrant workers in Jordan, of which only a quarter are officially documented...

There are many migrant workers in Jordan, especially in the textile sector. They make up 75 per cent of textile workers and come mainly from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka Myanmar, China, Nepal and Madagascar. There are around eight nationalities working in the sector.

The migrant workers are popular with employers because they earn lower wages, work longer hours, don’t get pregnant and take their annual leave at the end of their contract. Local women have more family responsibilities; she uses her annual leave and sick leave and maternity leave. So businesses prefer migrant workers. But we are trying to replace these migrant workers with Syrian refugees because they are already in Jordan. Employers don’t need to spend money on flights bringing them to the country.

What is the average wage for a textile worker in Jordan?

The wage for textile workers is around 110 Jordanian dollars (US$ 155). However, the average Jordanian wage is 350 to 420 JD. (US$ 490 to US$ 590). Which means most local people are not interested in working in our sector.

What are you doing to try and increase wages in the textile sector in Jordan? 

We signed a sectoral agreement in 2013 to increase salaries for all workers – migrants and Jordanians – by 5 JD (US$ 7) per year. This is expired in May 2015 but we now have an extension to 2017 when the minimum wage will be 120 JD per month by the end of 2017 (US$170).