Most refugees are denied the right to work, and are pushed into informal labor markets, with the associated risks of exploitation. Compacts between international donors and host countries in the Syrian region present an example of an effort at a global level to address the socio-economic rights of refugees, including the right to work.
Using the Jordan Compact as a case study, and drawing on international human rights law, this article examines the extent to which such agreements can be an effective tool in achieving refugees’ right to work. It focuses on three areas that are covered by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR): (1) access to work, (2) decent work, and (3) international cooperation and assistance. The analysis is based on field research, key informant interviews and focus-group discussions with policy makers, humanitarian workers, scholars, and Syrian refugees.
- The 1951 Refugee Convention has limitations on the right to work for refugees, i.e. refugees are not treated on an equal basis as nationals but rather “the most favorable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances”. In contrast, the rights granted under international human rights law, including the ICESCR, are premised on universality and non-discrimination.
- The ICESCR confirms the fundamental, binding and universal nature of the human right to work. Article 6 protects the right to freely choose or accept work, including wage-earning employment, self-employment and work in the liberal professions. Article 7 protects the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favorable conditions of work, which includes fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value; a decent living; safe and healthy working conditions; and equal opportunity for promotion, rest, leisure and holidays with pay. Article 2(1) requires state parties to take steps both individually and ‘through international assistance and cooperation especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources’ to progressively realize rights under the Covenant.
- The Jordan Compact has not granted all Syrian refugees the right to work without conditions—Syrian refugees are treated as any other non-Jordanian, dependent on work permits to access legal work and limited to a select number of low-skilled sectors. This falls short of being able to freely choose work commensurate with their skills and experiences. While focusing on job creation and seeking to minimize the number of workers in the informal economy, it does not address the underlying restrictive legal framework that incentivizes the informal market for refugees.
- Several challenges resulted in a relatively low uptake of work permits under the Jordan Compact time frame (e.g. acquiring the necessary identity documentation and proof of residency, understanding the administrative process, misinformation about losing humanitarian aid, and travel challenges in accessing registration offices). Uptake by women refugees has been particularly low. Linking work permits to employers exposes refugee workers to exploitation and removes the bargaining powers of the worker. It also creates challenges for refugees who wish to work across several jobs to support their livelihoods.
- Access to self-employment in Jordan has become even more restrictive for refugees since the Compact, which, given the preference of women for home-based work, has a detrimental gender impact. The requirement that refugee business owners acquire a Jordanian business partner to register makes them vulnerable to exploitation even in self-employment.
- A further concern is the compact’s focus on jobs for Syrian refugees inside Jordan’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Globally, SEZs have been associated with poor outcomes for health, safety and human rights of workers.
- A further concern that the Jordan Compact fails to address is the wage discrepancy between nationals and refugee workers in Jordan.
The author highlights that, while industrialized donor states may consider their responses to be in the arena of ‘humanitarian assistance’ or a migration-policy approach geared to contain refugee populations inside the region, there is a clear legal framework aside from international refugee law, under the ICESCR, that must shape responses of both donor and host states. The author finds that the Jordan Compact’s main achievement from a human rights perspective has been the engagement of wealthier donor states, alongside technical international organizations including the World Bank and IMF, and the host state, to agree a shared set of objectives that improve access to work for refugees. The author concludes that the Jordan Compact provides a progressive and innovative means of international action to better realize the right to work for refugees, albeit with real shortcomings in its implementation