This story is part of a package that includes In Lebanon and Jordan, Syrians Face Bleak Employment Future, and a Fact File about Syrians’ Work Rights in Neighboring Countries.
A year ago, the Turkish government said it would give work permits to Syrians in the country. But the majority of Syrians are still unemployed, despite an expanding Turkish economy.
The sharp difference between a public goal and the private reality for Syrians typifies their employment situation in Turkey.
The obstacles are basic: language and discrimination. “The Turkish language is a prerequisite for finding jobs, especially for university graduates,” says Ayham, a civil engineering graduate of Damascus University. “In addition, many Turkish companies are simply not willing to hire Syrians.”
During his three years in Turkey, Ayham has had to do work that is entirely unrelated to his academic specialty. “I worked in blacksmith shops, bakeries, and groceries before I found a job in a motel near Taksim Square,” he said.
Turkey is among the one of the world’s most sympathetic countries to Syrians; it has received more than 2,854,968 Syrian refugees, according to the latest statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Those refugees now make up 3.5 percent of Turkey’s total population.
On January 15, 2016, the government began allowing Syrians who had been registered for at least six months with Turkey’s labor protection system to work in the city where their document was issued. The protection system allows Syrians to register, in the province where they reside, for access to free medical and educational services, and for protection from the possibility of being deported if they violate the law.
To further encourage employment, Turkish law allows organizations to hire up to 10 percent of their employees from among the Syrian population. It also allows employers to go over that proportion if they can’t find enough Turkish employees to perform the required jobs. The law allows exceptions for the agricultural sector and those who take care of livestock, and each Turkish province can determine those proportions according to their needs. The law forbids paying Syrian workers less than the minimum annual salary for Turks, and requires employers to provide their Syrian employees with the same employee benefits as Turkish ones. That requirement is in contrast to countries where Syrians usually do not get the same benefits as citizens.
Despite these favorable conditions, Ayham and many other Syrians work illegally in Turkey, and the reality they face is very different from the one envisioned by Turkish law.
“The employer must issue a work permit for me,” said Ayham. “But all the employers I met refuse to do that to avoid paying the required fees and paying the minimum wage.” He said the majority of the Syrians he knows work long hours at wages less than the official monthly minimum wage—which is about 1,200 Turkish lira ($325). In many cases, employers will withhold the wages of Syrians or pay them irregularly, multiple sources told Al-Fanar Media. Syrians are afraid to go to the police to file a complaint because they work illegally. The first-time fine for illegal work is 600 Turkish lira ($163) and must be paid by the employer, according to the law.
Between 2011 and 2015, 7,700 Syrian refugees were granted work permits, according to the Al-Sharq Forum study. In the six months after the government liberalized its regulations, only an additional 5,500 work permits were issued to Syrians.
There are several reasons for the decline, including the restriction on Syrians’ employment to the province where they are registered. That limitation produces a higher unemployment rate for Syrians in the southern and eastern provinces, near Syria, because of their large numbers in those areas and their inability to travel elsewhere to find work.
Rami Sharraq, deputy executive director of the Syrian Economic Forum, an independent Syrian think tank based in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, believes Syrian youths have good opportunities in the Turkish labor market, especially with the presence of a number of Syrian investors in Turkey.
“A Syrian worker produces more than his Turkish counterpart,” said Sharraq. “Besides, Syrian workers’ wages are about 40 percent less compared to the Turkish workforce. This encourages many people to hire Syrians.”
According to estimates by Turkey’s Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, a national confederation of chambers of commerce, 4,450 Syrian companies were established in Turkey between 2011 and 2015. Those companies employ a large number of Syrians, according to Sharraq.
But Syrian workers have few rights, even if they work for other Syrians, he said. “There is no legal body to protect the rights of Syrian workers in Turkey,” he said.
Last month, workers at Rozana Radio, a Syrian opposition radio station in Gaziantep—including 14 journalists and technicians—announced a strike that lasted a week to protest the radio administration’s decisions to cut their salaries and pay them in Turkish lira amid a sharp drop in the currency’s value. The administration responded by firing them all and hiring new employees, which sparked debate on the rights of Syrian employees in the countries neighboring Syria.
To increase the employment of Syrians in the long term, Sharraq believes a survey should be conducted that examines the skills of Syrians and the needs of the labor markets in host countries.
“When providing scholarships for Syrian students in Turkey and other neighboring countries,” said Sharraq, “we have to think of the needs of the host labor market first, along with the future needs of the Syrian labor market, when peace comes, in order to start building the necessary capabilities and skills for that moment.”