Across the MENA region a pervasive culture of shame sees families reluctant to let their daughters join the workforce and views blue-collar jobs as dishonourable.
In front of 30 young women sitting in an airless room in Zarqa, 45 minutes from Amman, a teacher explains how to deal with an angry and argumentative customer. Her speech is peppered with English stock phrases for the retail industry – “try to contain the situation” – and afterwards students act out scenarios, while their classmates and the teacher watch and provide feedback. Part of a UN Women-funded programme to improve the socio-economic well-being of “vulnerable Jordanian women in host communities”, in Zarqa and Irbid – two of the northern governorates that host the largest numbers of Syrian refugees in Jordan – it’s being implemented by Jordan Education for Employment (JEFE), an NGO. Offered for girls aged 18-26, it’s designed to boost employability and civic engagement opportunities, by teaching data entry and secretarial skills, soft skills such as how to communicate with employers and with customers, and education on political engagement and dealing with domestic violence.
"This course has given us independence, and that’s the most important thing."
To hear the students tell it, the nine-week training course has given them important insights into the world of work, and just as importantly the confidence to pursue employment. They have ambitious career goals: one plans to work in customer care and public relations, and hopes to reach managerial level within five years; another intends on working for several years before returning to university to convert her diploma in pharmacy into a bachelor’s degree, ultimately opening her own pharmacy.
But more than that, there is a strong element of self-empowerment. “This course has given us independence, and that’s the most important thing,” says one. Another credits the programme with teaching them about how important they are, and that their place is not only in the home. “We can find ourselves and achieve something.”
While young women like these in Jordan can face challenges present in any job market in the world – the first job is most difficult, and even for an entry-level position employers want experience or special skills, complains one – they must also contend with cultural traditions that create resistance for their joining the workforce. Parents of young women – especially those in poorer or rural areas – are often reluctant to allow them to work, says Ibtisam Al-Majali, chairwoman of Shoa’a, a charity based in Zarqa. And for those that do find work, later when they marry, their new husband may make them quit their job so he can fulfil the stereotype of the family bread-winner. Shoa’a has operated in the employment services sector for nearly a decade, and this culture of shame around work has been their biggest challenge, she says.
To help break down resistance from parents they are invited to participate in the training courses, and then to the daughter’s workplace during the initial period. But apart from work itself, parents are also reluctant to allow their daughters to travel unaccompanied; the limited private sector presence in rural areas means that women may commute to distant cities or industrial zones for work, leaving early in the morning and arriving home late.
In Jordan’s case, this is compounded by a lack of public transportation. (Having once received half of its oil for free from Iraq, and the other half at reduced price, the government never had an incentive to implement a public transportation policy; today that means a lack of mobility for all labourers, adding to the problem of unemployment, says Marwan Khardoosh, an economist.) In the end, often it is the prospect of an extra pay-cheque that wins over parents, explains Al-Majali. “If you are a father and you allow your daughter to work, it's normally only because you need the money.”
Change - but not enough
The culture of shame also explains why so many Jordanian men eschew working in private sector jobs they consider infra dig. Despite high unemployment in the country – 12.7 per cent nationally, rising to 28.8 per cent for youth – sectors including construction, manufacturing and agriculture rely on employing foreign workers. The first preference among Jordanian youth is to work in the public sector – an attitude virtually ubiquitous across the entire MENA region – and while they will accept work in certain areas of the private sector, there are wide-spread prejudices against working in vocational sectors or accepting blue-collar work, says Ghadeer Kuffash, CEO of JEFE.
There are some signs that attitudes may be softening, but not quickly enough. In a survey published in a 2014 study by RAND Corporation, respondents from middle-class suburbs in Amman rejected certain jobs as shameful. One from a working-class suburb in Amman said that if he had no food to eat, he would prefer to become a thief than work as a garbage collector, purely because society views such a job as disgraceful: “Let’s say I want to marry a girl, the first thing [her father] would ask me is about my job, and I would be in a very bad situation, because no one would give his daughter to a garbage man!”
More recently, the influx of Syrian refugees has boosted the labour pool, and although Syrians are unable to legally work in most sectors, relevant skill sets coupled with a willingness to work longer hours and for less pay make them an attractive prospect for many employers. While there is some crowding out of Jordanians, at the same time Kuffash believes that Jordanians are seeing Syrians flourishing, and in turn trying to find work in sectors which weren’t attractive in the past. “They are seeing that Syrians are doing well in these jobs, and asking, ‘So why not us?’"
Today a successful and well-known Jordanian business man, when he was 18 Amjad Ayran moved to the US, where he spent five years working first in a gas station, then in car sales and then in carpet cleaning, before deciding to go to pharmacy school at the age of 23. Later, he returned to Jordan to found Pharmacy 1, now a successful chain of more than 75 pharmacies in Jordan that has begun expanding in the Middle East.
Ayran credits those various jobs before pharmacy school as helping him gain the self-confidence, passion and resilience needed to succeed. “The first five years made me who I am today,” says Aryan. Nevertheless, when he returned to Jordan from the US where he had been working for a pharmacy, friends in his father’s circle politely told him to drop the mentions of his stint as a carpet cleaner, considering it unbecoming for a businessman. More broadly, Ayran considers the lack of positive role models in vocational roles in Jordan problematic, as is a lack of knowledge among students of the educational pathways for 'ordinary jobs' such as plumber.
While JEFE works to try to change Jordan’s rigid employment culture for youth, much broader changes are needed, believes Kuffash. School textbooks never have positive examples of youth joining vocational sectors, while presenting a stereotype of the mother who stays home to cook and clean as the husband goes to work. “Many female school leavers don’t know it's their right to look for a job, because they’ve never been shown examples of a woman who went to work and succeeded in her job,” she says. “We don't see any support through the education system to employment – we need a make-over for our curriculum.”
Look for models overseas
Germany has a successful dual-track education system which provides career guidance on possible vocational career tracks, as well smooth integration of technical training within education and in the private sector. One of the major lessons has been that education around vocation happens in the classroom and in broader society, and that everyone involved in a child’s upbringing should be aware of how fruitful vocational training can be, in order to avoid blue-collar jobs being stigmatised as dirty and dull, says Kristine Schinkmann, Arab countries export advisor at iMOVE, a Germany government agency that provides services to German training organisations operating abroad, as well as connecting international partners. “Starting from as early as nursery school, teachers and especially parents should communicate to the child that there are alternative education pathways to an academic career which are also profitable and rewarding.”
It's clear to many that wholesale change is needed. In a recent paper on unemployment in Egypt for the Brookings Institution, Adel Abdel Ghafar identified education reform as the most pressing reform needed, suggesting that the country should move away from the free higher education model and focus on producing a smaller number of high-quality graduates, while overhauling the curriculum for technical and vocational educational training (TVET) institutions by creating partnerships with the private sector and investing in specialists to better prepare graduates for the job market.
Ghafar suggests that Egypt should look to Brazil for a model; in the early 1990s it integrated vocational training schools within institutions of higher education, while at the same time embarking on a successful campaign to publicise the fact that vocational training can lead to stable and well-paid jobs with prospects for progression. In Egypt, a similar PR campaign is needed to promote the attractiveness of jobs such as factory foreman, to demonstrate that the job is desirable, and that there is social mobility within a blue-collar job setting, believes Ghafar. Yet for efforts like these to work, attractive employment and income opportunities must then of course exist, says Schinkmann. Despite the cultural factors around the perception of blue-collar jobs as shameful, it is a difficult task to disentangle the culture of shame from simply inadequate pay or benefits, the RAND report notes.
The National Employment Pact (NEP) is a job-matching service based in Cairo that specifically targets the blue-collar sector, dealing with the problem of low prestige on a continuous basis. And while the sector is in dire need of job-seekers, many Egyptian youth prefer instead to be employed in the informal sector, says NEP’s Mohammed Ezzat. The informal sector offers flexible working hours and no boss, and sometimes even pays better than the private sector, which in many cases is unable to offer jobs with attractive wages and benefits, while even small issues like the meal or transport allowance can be a sticking point, says Ezzat.
Egypt’s informal sector is about two thirds the size of the formal sector, and since 2011, as the private sector has struggled, its importance to job-seekers has grown; recent data shows that among wage workers in Egypt who have at least a secondary education, only 42 per cent have access to a formal work contract. Even in the formal private sector, there is little job security, says Ezzat. That precariousness helps explain why a job in the public sector is so coveted, since it is almost impossible for a public servant to be fired. (It is also an important avenue for social mobility, notes Ghafar.) During his research, Ghafar interviewed a flight attendant at Egypt Air, and asked why they didn’t want to work for one of the Gulf airlines that offer higher pay. "I don't care about higher pay, I care that there I can wake up and they can fire me," was the reply.
The dangers of failure
Equalising the attraction of the private sector with the public, or at least boosting its appeal, will likely require significant policy level measures, suggests Ghafar, such as reform of labour laws, greater protection for workers and a higher minimum wage. Nevertheless, with as many as 450,000 youth joining the labour market each year in Egypt, it’s not a problem the country’s leaders can afford to ignore. Ghafar quotes research showing a direct correlation between youth unemployment and the socio-economic and political stability of a state, such as a report by the African Development Bank that explored data from 24 developing countries and found a direct correlation between unemployment and political instability.
“What is important now is that the Egyptian government fully recognises and acknowledges the urgency of challenges it faces as it attempts to deal with the problem of the unemployment of not only university graduates, but all young people who rose up in 2011 to demand basic political, economic and social rights. “Should these rights continue to go unrealised, it will be increasingly possible that Egypt will experience another uprising in the coming years,” he believes. In both Egypt and Jordan, some youth have the option of relying on their family networks to support them until they find a desirable job in Jordan or can emigrate to the Gulf, so-called 'luxury unemployment'. But it’s not an option for everyone.
In JEFE’s head office in Amman, Kuffash worries particularly about youth in rural areas, distant from the jobs and economic development of Jordan’s capital. “We are worried that ISIS will target these people to join their troops, because if they don't have a better option and ISIS will pay them money, for them it seems like a great opportunity,” she says with a sigh.