Unemployment, poverty rise in Syria
Damascus - With the Syrian civil war in its fifth year, official unemployment hit a record 42% during the first quarter, swelling the country’s poverty rate and exacerbating the hardships of one-third of a population displaced inside the Arab republic.
The astronomical joblessness rate puts added pressure on the regime of President Bashar Assad, which controls just four of Syria’s 14 provinces. The others are in the hands of either armed rebels seeking to topple Assad or the Islamic State (ISIS).
Aware that the bulk of his people are famished, Assad hastened to amend his social security laws to prevent the private sector from dismissing more workers, but critics said the change failed to bear fruit.
He also made cosmetic changes to education law, hiring 75,000 newly graduated teachers over three years ending in 2014 in state-run schools but that effort stopped when more provinces fell out of state control.
As for the social security law, experts argue that additional changes are needed to ensure that workers would not be arbitrarily dismissed and that those already fired must receive indemnity retroactive to the date they lost their jobs.
Syrian Labour Minister Khalaf Abdullah said recently that a state committee deliberating the desired changes in the social security laws may need another six months to complete its work.
With no immediate solution in the offing, more Syrians are joining the ranks of the unemployed.
According to the state Syrian Commission for Family Affairs and Population, nearly one-third of Syria’s population of 19.8 million is displaced internally. It said the displaced fled from conflict zones to the four provinces under government control: Latakia and Tartus on the Mediterranean coast, Damascus in the south and Al-Hasakah in the north-east. The four, however, fall outside the jurisdiction of commercial hubs, such as the northern province of Aleppo.
“Because of the lack of work opportunities in the adopted homes of the displaced who fled the hardships of war to safer areas, unemployment jumped to a record high, unprecedented in the history of the Syrian Arab Republic,” Hadeel Asmar, the commission’s director, said in an interview. Akram al-Qash, a commission board member, said joblessness shot up to 42% from 8.4% prior to crisis, which began with peaceful demonstrations on March 17, 2011, and escalated into a full-scale war.
“At least 70% of the unemployed are young men and women,” Qash pointed out. He called for “ambitious strategies” to find them jobs in the private sector.
Qash said the closure of an estimated 50,000 private sector factories and institutions, each employing between five to 100 workers, “is the main reason for the unemployment, which threatens our social fabric and the lives of thousands of families living under the poverty line”. According to the state General Establishment for Social Insurance, more than 600,000 Syrians working in tourism, hotels, travel agencies and banks were laid off arbitrarily during the past four years.
A 44-year-old Syrian, who identified himself as Salem, worked at a trade firm in Deir ez-Zor province, which is under ISIS control. “Three years ago, my boss fired me without paying my indemnity for my ten years of service in his firm,” Salem said.
He has been looking for a job since but said, “There are 130 others like me who worked in the firm and are jobless now.”
“I blame our situation on the shortcomings of the labour law and the corruption in the social insurance system.”
Another worker, 49-year-old Suleiman, who was employed at a plastic factory in the Damascus suburb of Jobar, said the amendment to the social insurance law “came late and is useless to me”.
“I worked for 21 years in the factory and when I was laid off, I didn’t receive any compensation because the social insurance law did not protect me,” he explained. He pointed out that even the amended law does not protect him because “it is not retroactive and would only serve new cases”. For economist Suleiman Saloom, the public sector is Syria’s “weakest link”.
“There are 65 state factories that shut down and the education sector was heavily damaged because hundreds of schools were closed since they fall outside the state’s jurisdiction,” Saloom said.
“Prior to the crisis, the education sector was of significant importance because it absorbed the bulk of the newcomers to the workforce,” he maintained. He said at least 50,000 new graduates used to be hired in government schools annually.