Jordan’s government reaches out to unions in search for appeasement

Since 2017, unions have been at the forefront of confrontation with Jordan’s successive governments.
Thursday 21/01/2021
Jordanian protesters demonstrate during an anti-austerity rally, on June 6, 2018, in front of the Labor Union offices in Amman. (AFP)
Jordanian protesters demonstrate during an anti-austerity rally, on June 6, 2018, in front of the Labor Union offices in Amman. (AFP)

AMMAN – Negative economic indicators in Jordan are prompting the government of Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh to look for social appeasement with active national forces, especially unions, which in recent years have managed to fill the vacuum created by the decline of political parties and the absence of serious parliamentary opposition.

Since last year, Jordan’s economic situation has been deteriorating with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged various sectors, especially fragile ones, and led to massive layoffs.

Khasawneh’s government recently submitted the 2021 budget to parliament. While presenting the broad framework to parliamentarians, Finance Minister Muhammad al-Ississ said the latest budget was the most difficult and exceptional, in light of a large deficit that is expected to reach $2.89 billion after accounting for foreign grants.

Although the government is committed to not imposing a greater tax burden on citizens, it remains concerned about a confrontation with the street, especially as citizens’ patience runs thin with no potential breakthrough in sight.  

Since 2017, unions have been at the forefront of confrontation with Jordan’s successive governments, succeeding in overthrowing the government of former Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki and creating a chronic headache for former Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz’s cabinet.

 In this confrontation, the teachers’ syndicate led the pressure campaign, leading to a judicial order for the group to be dissolved.

In such a tense climate, Khasawneh is apparently trying to reach a truce with the unions, which wield significant influence on the public.

Khasawneh recently held a meeting with the head of Jordan’s Agricultural Engineers Association Abdel Hadi Falahat and the heads of professional unions in the presence of numerous ministers.

During the meeting, the prime minister praised the role of trade unions and reaffirmed the government’s commitment to working and cooperating with them to improve the professions and their members’ conditions. 

Professional associations are “houses of intellectual and professional expertise that the government seeks to benefit from in overcoming many of the key challenges facing our country,” Khasawneh said.

Jordan’s King Abdullah and Crown Prince Hussein talk to newly-appointed Prime Minister Bisher al Khasawneh during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Amman, Jordan October 12, 2020. (Reuters)
Jordan’s King Abdullah and Crown Prince Hussein talk to newly-appointed Prime Minister Bisher al Khasawneh during a swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Amman, Jordan October 12, 2020. (Reuters)

He added that he would visit the trade unions’ complex over the next few weeks to discuss issues of concern.

Khasawneh pointed out that the difficult year the kingdom has gone through as a result of the pandemic has affected many of the government’s plans and led to restrictions on professional union elections.

He pledged that with the improving epidemiological situation, the government will open the way for professional union elections to be held starting next spring. He explained that this will happen gradually, starting with elections for unions with less public bodies to those for unions that include the largest number of affiliates.

Professional unions have been demanding permission to hold their elections, feeling the repeated delays due to the coronavirus are not warranted, especially as they have submitted proposals to facilitate the conduct of the electoral process.

The unions believe that there are political dimensions to postponing the elections, especially as legislative elections were held last November at the height of the pandemic.

Observers believe that Khasawneh’s pledge to open the way for union elections next spring is a gesture of good will and an attempt to restore trust between the government and unions. The trust was recently shaken when the government decided to accelerate the implementation of a decision to dissolve the teachers’ syndicate.

During the meeting, the unions’ delegation discussed this issue, criticising the way it was handled, and calling for a revocation of the measures taken against the union.

The teachers’ syndicate is one of the most prominent and dynamic professional unions in Jordan. In 2019, the union carried out a strike that lasted a whole month, after which it reached an agreement with the government to increase teachers’ basic salaries by 35% to 75%.

The agreement, however, was temporarily frozen last April, prompting the syndicate to return to the street again. Then, in December, a Jordanian court sentenced five leaders of the national teachers’ syndicate to one year in prison 

During a recent meeting with Khasawneh, the unions’ delegation addressed many issues that affect the lives of citizens, including political and economic concerns, freedoms, the status of Jordanian prisoners in Israel, combating corruption and enhancing public trust in state institutions.

The unions, which realise that the government is in a weak position, are apparently seeking to capitalise on the situation to obtain the maximum possible gains, experts say.

In response to the unions’ demands, Khasawneh pledged to safeguard public freedoms, “where the sky is the limit with commitment to the rule of law by all,” adding that his government had not filed a single lawsuit against any journalist or critic of its policies or measures.

The prime minister, whose government won a vote of confidence in the lower house last week, said the government is open to cooperating with the legislature to finalise legislation governing political development. He also vowed to combat corruption.