The impact of forced displacement on labour market outcomes in Jordan


The last few years have seen some of the highest levels of forced displacement in modern global history. In the almost quarter-century between 1997 to 2021, the number of displaced people ballooned from almost 34 million to just shy of 90 million. The biggest uptick took place between 2012 and 2015, primarily due to the Syrian conflict. More than half of the Syrian population has been displaced internally or across borders. Over 5.5 million Syrians have fled Syria since 2011, many seeking safety in neighbouring countries and beyond. This humanitarian crisis has generated public sympathy as well as concern about the implications of such a massive flow of people.

Jordan has experienced a substantial influx of Syrians, with 1.3 million Syrians living in Jordan as per the 2015 Population Census.

Compared to a total population of 6.6 million Jordanians in 2015, the refugee population represents a major increase in the number of people living in Jordan. The impact of such a massive influx of refugees on members of the host community has been significant, particularly on the labour market outcomes of both refugee and native workers.

Although studies on the impact of immigration on employment and wages in receiving countries have flourished over the last few years given the surge in academic and public interest, literature on the impact of refugees on the labour market is small but growing. Unlike in the case of economic immigration, refugees are forced migrants who had to flee violence and conflict. Also, given the massive size of refugee inflows, they are typically seen as an exogenous shift in the labour supply of the host country. One would expect that such a shock would reduce the employment and wages of natives in the short run. However, as the literature has already shown, this framework might be too simplistic. The characteristics and skill levels of the refugees matter. Whether refugees have the same or different skills as workers in the host country (i.e. whether their skills substitute or complement whatever is currently available) will affect their impact.

Another important issue is the institutional context that governs the participation of refugees in the labour market. Whether refugees are allowed to participate in the labour market legally, and if so in which sectors, plays a key role in whether and how refugees impact the labour market outcomes of other workers.

Labour supply shock in Jordan and the role of trade unions

The ability of refugees (or agencies supporting refugees) to generate demand for goods and services, and thus employment, is another important cause of refugee-induced labour ‘market shock’, which may have complex effects on local outcomes.

Economic theory would suggest that a large influx of refugees would yield a labour supply shock in Jordan. First, refugees would displace natives (particularly, initially, in the informal economy), which would reduce employment amongst local workers and lower wages. condly, this might lead to complex impacts on formal employment and wages depending on the complementarity between the two sectors and the access of refugees, once they have work permits.

A caveat to this theoretical prediction is that the deal with the European Union that led to Jordan offering work permits also included additional aid and trade concessions. These aspects of the deal could generate additional labour demand among Jordanians, as could the general effort to provide aid to refugees, as more Jordanians work to provide services for refugees. The net effect of these labour supply and demand impacts is, theoretically, ambiguous.

From the point of view of trade unions, which play a crucial role in defending the rights and welfare of all workers, including refugees, the refugee situation in Jordan presents unique challenges and opportunities.

Within the framework of access to decent work, trade unions give priority to ensuring that refugees have access to decent work, which includes fair wages, safe working conditions, and social protection by finding policies that promote equal treatment and non-discrimination in employment, regardless of refugee status.

Unions also believe that the massive inflow of refugees may turn into an opportunity leading to the economic integration of refugees in the Jordanian labour market and work to ensure that they are not subjected to exploitation or informal labour.

This is achieved through initiatives that promote skills training and the recognition of previous qualifications to enhance the employability of refugees.

Building effective partnerships

From a practical point of view, trade unions in Jordan have sought to protect labour rights by building effective partnerships, both at the national level, such as the agreements concluded with the Ministry of Labour in 2017 (which are now renewed annually) in order to issue flexible work permits that enable refugee workers to work within his or her competence, if possible, without the need for a sponsor. Unions have also sought, through cooperation with both the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Arab Trade Union Confederation (ATUC), to protect the rights of refugee workers, such as the right to organise, the right to collective bargaining, and protection from unfair treatment or arbitrary dismissal through the establishment of trade union committees that represent these workers, especially in the agriculture and public services sectors.

Trade unions and stakeholders have also sought to ensure access to social protection for refugees by expanding their coverage, ensuring their access to health care, unemployment benefits, and other social support systems, on the understanding that comprehensive social protection policies should not discriminate on the basis of gender or nationality or worker status in the Jordanian labour market, whether workers are locals, immigrants or refugees.

Trade unions in Jordan have the potential to be strong advocates for the rights of refugee workers and to contribute to their social and economic integration. By working in collaboration with other stakeholders, including government, employers, and civil society organisations, trade unions can help create an enabling environment that protects the rights and promotes the well-being of refugees in the labour market.