Refugees and Decent Work – Lessons Learned from Recent Refugee Jobs Compacts

Jennnifer Gordon

International Labor Office – Geneva, Employment Policy Department, Employment Working Paper No. 256 (2019)


This paper examines refugee livelihoods from a labor standards perspective. The author presents case studies of the work aspects of the Jordanian and Ethiopian job compacts, and distils lessons learned about how to integrate refugees into host country labor markets in ways that do not expose refugees to exploitation, or indirectly undermine conditions for those already doing the work. The author outlines a series of recommendations for how refugee work agreements could be structured, from the beginning, to protect and advance workers’ rights, including host country nationals, migrants and refugees.

Key points:

  • The Jordan and Ethiopian Job Compacts expanded labor market access for refugees but focused, at least initially, on employment at the bottom of global supply chains, where wages are low and workers’ rights are often violated.
  • Through the Jordan Compact, the EU and individual EU countries, with the support of the Bank, pledged nearly US$2 billion to the Jordanian government. In return, the government agreed to provide refugees with access to education and 200,000 work permits in selected sectors already open to migrant workers (e.g. in the garment industry). Jordanian companies in export manufacturing zones that met a hiring target of 15 percent Syrian refugees would be given access to EU markets at reduced tariffs. The EU’s support was motivated by the premise that trade incentives could increase refugee employment in Jordan and thereby reduce onward movement of Syrians to Europe.
  • Three years later fewer than 500 Syrians are working in the designated industrial zones in Jordan, 95 percent of whom are men. Obstacles to the employment of Syrian women included: the distance between most Syrians’ homes and the zones, the need for childcare, lack of relevant work experience among Syrians in Jordan, and a reluctance among Syrians for women to work outside the home in mixed-gender environments. Additionally, Jordanian export factory managers preferred their current workforce, predominately female migrant workers from South Asia, over Syrians. Since disbursements were linked to the number of work permits, UN agencies, donor governments and international NGOs invested heavily in overcoming these challenges.
  • Arguably, however, the trade-driven aspect of the Jordan Compact is unlikely to succeed given the current business model of the garment industry, in which a middle-income country is competing with much lower-wage nations for ready-made garment export contracts. Factories must keep prices low and turnaround swift—leading to low wages and poor safety protections for workers. Low pay and poor working conditions are key obstacles to refugees’ willingness to work in export manufacturing zones.
  • The permit scheme has had considerably more success in domestically oriented industries (agriculture, construction, and low-wage services) than in export manufacturing, with approximately 45,000 work permits. Although these are the same sectors where Syrians previously worked informally.
  • Syrian work permit holders still face many violations of basic decent work principles.
  • Decent work deficits occur in a context of high levels of informality. Syrians with permits continue to work in the largely informal sectors of agriculture and construction, alongside Syrians who have not obtained permits, and both authorized and undocumented migrant workers.
  • Jordanians by and large did not experience displacement from their jobs following the granting of work permits to Syrian refugees, but migrant worker wages and working conditions have been adversely affected.
  • As part of the Ethiopia Jobs Compact, the Ethiopian government committed to creating 100,000 jobs in new industrial parks, of which 30,000 would be for refugees. In return, it would receive US$500 million in grants and low-interest loans. Unlike the Jordan Compact, the Ethiopia Jobs Compact explicitly recognizes concerns about decent work and identifies actions to address them (the passage of revised labor legislation and the establishment of a National Minimum Wage Board).
  • Studies of the Ethiopian garment industry have revealed the inadequacy of wages relative to the cost of living in Ethiopia, and other concerns about decent work including unpaid labor, sexual harassment, high levels of verbal abuse, poor quality, expensive housing distant from the worksite, and a lack of genuine worker representation. Consequently stakeholders in the Ethiopian Jobs Compact will now seek other economic opportunities for the 30,000 refugees in formal waged employment, self-employment, or entrepreneurship opportunities.
  • High rates of informal employment in Ethiopia generally, and the lack of development in the refugee-hosting border regions will make formal job targets difficult to meet. It will be necessary to engage with work in the informal economy to move opportunities closer to decent work standards.



  • The Jordan and Ethiopia case studies offer several lessons for how refugee labor market integration programs could maximize decent work: (a) work rights should be granted to the refugee directly, rather than tied to an employer sponsor; (b) work rights should be mobile across regions and firms; (c) the process to access work rights should be simple and low cost; (d) refugees, and workers’ organizations that represent them, should be active participants in the design and implementation of labor market integration programs; and (e) for refugee women to benefit from an effort to advance decent work, the program must be designed with them and for them.
  • Advancing decent work for refugees requires a different set of actors and approaches than those traditionally engaged in refugee livelihoods initiatives. Humanitarian and development actors will need to intensively engage with organizations, such as the ILO, with expertise in labor standards and migration. To date, the focus has been on granting refugees the right to work; to achieve a standard of decency, this must be coupled with rights at work. Strategies already developed to advance decent work for migrant workers are highly relevant for refugees.
  • Refugee work initiatives should be an integral part of efforts to advance decent work in the host country overall. Intervention on behalf of refugees should be designed to advance decent work for all labor market participants including local workers, IDPs, and migrant workers. Refugees should have the same labor and social protections as others and the same opportunity to organize/join trade unions. Given the lack of evidence from Jordan or Ethiopia that trade-driven refugee work initiatives generate employment that is of interest to refugees, programs should encompass opportunities in the domestic economy. Improving conditions in informal jobs should be an affirmative goal of refugee livelihoods programs.

The author concludes that the ‘compact model’ need not be tied to the idea of trade-as-aid-for-refugees. Instead, it could be understood as a mechanism to support refugee access to host country labor markets under decent conditions. Initiatives to open jobs to refugees should be crafted from the outset to move towards decent work goals, rather than broadly targeting income-generating activity without reference to wages, working conditions or social protection.





Ethiopia | Jordan