No menial task in Jordan

Reform in Jordan going slowly

There is little doubt that reform over the past 15 years is helping Jordan to grow. The Jordanian economy has done especially well recently: Jordan’s real gross domestic product grew by 6.4% in 2006, while foreign and internal indebtedness fell last year to 73% of GDP, from 84% in 2005, and the deficit in the government’s budget represented 4.4% of gross domestic product in 2006, from 5.3% the year before. Prospects for 2007 are also good; and, barring regional conflagration, the outlook for next year is bright as well.

Growth nevertheless hides variations in economic performance. For example, cutting unemployment is a main goal of reform. However, at 14% in 2006 and around the same level today, joblessness is still high, and has been in double-digits for the past two decades.

That was not always the case: in the mid-70s and early 80s, due to public sector expansion, strong economic growth, and demand for Jordanian workers in regional markets, Jordan saw little unemployment. Such prosperity did not last long, however, and joblessness rose in the mid-80s because of slow growth of the regional labor market and the gradual return of Jordanian expatriates from the Gulf.

Additionally, high population growth began to have an impact on joblessness. Jordan’s population rose 10-fold in the past 50 years, to close to over 5.5 million today, because of immigration and high fertility coupled with low mortality. This increases the need for employment creation: the economy has to provide over 60,000 new jobs per annum for the next five years and 70,000 annually in the decade after to absorb new entrants into the labor market and prevent further unemployment, which today stands at around 170,000.

Although Jordan has achieved higher economic growth and attracted foreign investment, this has not helped create enough jobs for Jordanians. There is some evidence that the impact of growth on job-creation has lessened due partly to computers and other mechanization, though there is scant research on this topic and firm data is unavailable.

This requires new solutions to the joblessness problem, with the government trying some innovative training and helping to nudge locals into work previously done by non-Jordanians. Of these, there are more than a few in the kingdom: according to official figures, the number of guest workers in Jordan now stands at 314,000, and there are around 100,000 foreigners working in the country illegally.

About 72% of guest workers in Jordan are Arab, mainly from Egypt. Because of the proximity of the two countries and their affinities, large numbers of Egyptians come to Jordan, many in search of employment. More than 216,000 Egyptians work in the kingdom, representing 69% of the non-Jordanian workforce, but many are also in the country in other capacities, some of them illegal.

The state now seems to be doing something about this: to regularize the status of guest workers from Egypt, Amman this April suspended entry of Egyptian workers into the country offering a grace period to those already there to rectify their status under new work permits or switch to vocations in which they are entitled to employment. During that time, Jordan issued 77,000 work permits to Egyptians, before the ban on workers from Egypt entering the country ended at the beginning of July. Egyptians then wishing to work in Jordan had to hold professional certificates under a new labor accord between Amman and Cairo.

Will such a focused interventionist policy towards Egyptian migrants into Jordan succeed? Industrialists and farm owners in the kingdom say that replacing foreign labor with Jordanians should be gradual as there already is a shortage of cleaners, porters, and farm workers, most of these jobs filled by Egyptians. It is difficult to switch labor quickly, and the country’s industrialists have urged the government to be flexible in implementing the agreement with Egypt until enough Jordanians of appropriate categories become available. Farm owners in Jordan who employ Egyptians have noted bad experiences in the past with locals who could not tolerate the work environment or commit to working hours on farms. Jordanians shun work in the agricultural sector due to tough conditions; on the other hand, thousands of agricultural work permits annually go to Egyptians working in the kingdom.

It is obviously too early to tell whether stricter control on migrants will help resolve the country’s unemployment, but the key factor, of course, will be whether Jordanians can be convinced to do the menial jobs currently held by Egyptians and others. In any case, global forces mean that Jordan’s borders must stay open to migration — into and out — and that will inevitably make the task of state intervention tougher.


Riad Al-Khouri is Middle East director of GeoEconomica GmbH