Shrinking opportunities create 'dangerous' joblessness in Covid-hit Jordan

Lack of opportunity afflicts the young, but even experienced workers cannot find jobs

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Veteran tour guide Mohammad Rida used to make more than $100 a day before the coronavirus pandemic hit Jordan last year.

But Mr Rida has been struggling to pay his $400 rent and support his six-member family.

There are few tourists to take around archaeological sites.

The middle-aged man is one of thousands of Jordanians who lost their jobs over the last year, as Covid-19 lockdowns tipped the economy into recession after a decade of stagnation.

Mr Rida has been closely following news reports about vaccines, new strains and airports closing and reopening..

“I have been watching cycles of improvements and setbacks. In the current economy in Jordan there are no jobs for someone like me in his 40s,” he said.

The latest official data showed unemployment at a record high of 23.9 per cent at the end of September last year, compared to 19 per cent for the same period in 2019.

Having lifted most coronavirus restrictions two weeks ago, the government expects 2.5 per cent economic growth this year, compared to a 3 per cent contraction in 2020.

But in its latest assessment of Jordan, the World Bank said that coronavirus has “exacerbated existing structural weaknesses in the economy" and left social challenges unresolved.

Economic recovery would depend “on the evolution of the pandemic and whether reforms are put into effect” to make the economy more efficient, increase exports and create a better investment climate, the international agency said.

epa08498853 A Bedouin stands in the shade with his donkey at the reopened Petra archeological site, in Petra, some 280 km south of Amman, Jordan, 20 June 2020. Petra archeological site is one of the landmarks of Jordan tourism sector, the former Nabatean capital which dates back to about 200 BC, attracted in 2019, according to official figures, about 1,13 million visitors from all over the world. Following the start of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in Jordan, the last tourist left Petra on 16 March. Since then its some 200 guides, 1,500 horse and donkey owners, hotels, restaurant and tourist stalls workers stayed without a fixed revenue. As Jordan tourism sites have officially reopened to domestic tourism on 16 June, locals flocked on 20 June to visit Petra in quiet surroundings without the big tourist buses.  EPA-EFE/ANDRE PAIN *** Local Caption *** 56165725
A Bedouin stands in the shade with his donkey at the reopened Petra archeological site, in Petra, some 280 km south of Amman, Jordan, 20 June 2020. EPA photo

“We are seeing a dangerous trend in our sector of so many people graduating and not enough jobs,” Tareq Zureikat, chief executive officer of Jordanian engineering company Engicon, said.

Many big projects in Jordan and in the region were halted amid a general slowdown in the past decade. Gulf countries also enacted regulations to hire their own nationals, instead of imported white collar labour, he added.

epa08403269 A man wearing a face mask shops at the market in Downtown Amman, Jordan, 04 May 2020 (issued 05 May 2020). Most countries in the world have started easing confinement measures under the condition that people wear protective face masks.  EPA-EFE/ANDRE PAIN
A man wearing a face mask shops at the market in Downtown Amman, Jordan. EPA photo

“Lots of Jordanian engineers have been coming back from the Gulf,” Mr Zureikat said from his Nordic-styled office building atop Al Weibdeh hill in Amman.

“It is a good situation for us as employers because for any job postings we get to have a variety of options. But it is not good for the country as a whole,” he said.

The last time Jordanians returned from the Gulf in such numbers was just after the First Gulf War..

Although there are no indications that the country is witnessing a similar influx, central bank data show remittances from January to October last year were about $2.9 billion. This represents a 9.3 per cent decrease from the same period in 2019.

One woman who was working as an interpreter at a security company in Dubai said she was among dozens laid off last year because of declining business.

She said she was too depressed to talk about her experience, not having found any opportunities in Jordan. She spends much of her time with other friends who were laid off from the Gulf.

Compounding the problem, the trend of returning Jordanians dates back to the global financial crisis more than a decade ago.

Hamed, 45, lost his marketing executive job in Kuwait in 2018 under “kawtaneh”, as the Kuwaiti quota hiring policy is known.

“I am living off the savings from my 12 years of working in Kuwait,” he said.

The authorities have responded to rising unemployment by activating an emergency law that makes it difficult for companies to sack staff. The government has also offered loans to businesses to help them pay their staff and guaranteed small loans to workers who received salary cuts.

Government projects now require the hiring of more people from outlying areas and recent graduates as part-timers, to give them experience.

Social security fees were reduced and the budget for cash handouts and other government aid to the most impoverished families rose 38 per cent, to the equivalent of $284 million.

The country has a population of 10 million.

Unemployment has been above 12 per cent for most of the past decade and every successive Cabinet – Jordan has had 14 governments in 20 years – has pledged to make the issue a priority.

Outdated education 

At a Cabinet meeting presided over by King Abdullah II this week, Labour Minister Maan Al Qatamin said the government was working on “organising the labour market better” and finding job opportunities in provinces with high unemployment .

But many graduates say the education system is not up to date, putting them at a disadvantage to graduates from Lebanon, Turkey and western universities.

After graduating with a computer degree in May last year, Qusay Tashtoush spent months trying to find a job in his field.

He currently works packing tobacco at a small shisha workshop in Ruseifeh, a slum comprising workshops and residential housing on the outskirts of Amman.

The area is not far from his home city of Zarqa, one of the most impoverished urban centres in the country.

“The curriculum was from 2003, without any relation to market needs. I was studying just to get grades and pass,” the 22-year-old said.

Mr Tashtoush said he was trying to save money to take modern computer courses and was waiting for the situation to improve.

“Most of my friends are in the same situation,” he said.

Realising that the job market was tight after he graduated from the University of Jordan in 2015, mechatronics engineer Abdelrahman Kilani established a wood-printing business using an advanced 3D machine.

Mr Kilani, whose automated wood carvings depict themes from Palestine, is an exception in that he had the capital to find an alternative. He was inspired to start his 3D workshop by a prosthetics project at university.

He said many unemployed young people he knows have become disillusioned “because they feel they failed ”.

“The country failed them,” Mr Kilani said.

“They gave them the dream. They said: ‘Study what you want and you can have any life you want.’ But when it comes to the real world, that’s not how it is.”