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Global Public Policy and Governance



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refugee, livelihoods, ILO, Jordan Compact, decent work


For the past seventy years, separate international regimes have governed the economic lives of refugees and labor migrants. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) oversees all aspects of refugee resettlement, including livelihoods, while the International Labor Organization (ILO) is charged with addressing the labor rights of migrants. This division has become increasingly problematic as international actors have sought to move refugees into employment arenas from which they have been largely excluded since the end of WWII. This article uses a case study of the 2016 EU-Jordan Compact to illustrate the risks inherent in positioning refugees as workers in the absence of a commitment to a rights-based approach. The Compact was negotiated between the European Commission, the World Bank, and the Government of Jordan, in consultation with the UNHCR; the ILO played no role in crafting the agreement. It sought to place 150,000 Syrians in Jordanian garment export manufacturing jobs, replacing an existing migrant workforce in an industry notorious for low pay and poor conditions. This effort quickly foundered. Instead, large numbers of Syrian refugees have been channeled into informal employment in construction and agriculture in Jordan, where they and migrant co-workers face pervasive violations of labor standards. Without decent work as a central goal, the Compact ultimately concentrated some of the world’s most vulnerable workers in some of its least desirable jobs. To protect refugees and others alongside whom they labor, the article argues, refugee employment initiatives must be accompanied by attention to decent work from the outset. At the international level, this should include a critical role for the ILO, in recognition of its extensive expertise with the establishment and enforcement of labor standards for all workers.

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