3. Decent work for the most vulnerable

Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development has a strong focus on leaving no one behind. This has given the impetus for MENA countries to provide decent work opportunities for women who are particularly vulnerable in the labour market. Promoting opportunities for women to obtain decent work should apply not only to the formal labour market, but also to all types of workers and employers (ILO, 2002[1]). MENA countries typically have a large informal sector (Annex 1.B in Chapter 1 for the definition of informal employment). While there are lower levels of informal employment among women than men, women are typically overrepresented in the most vulnerable jobs (Chapter 1), especially paid domestic work, and in agriculture. The region hosts a large refugee population, whose status often leaves them no choice but to resort to informal employment.

In general, informal sector workers are not covered by the labour code. In addition, the four countries’ labour codes explicitly exclude certain categories of workers including domestic, agricultural and contributing family workers.

The case studies and boxes in this chapter show that countries are taking steps to improve the legal protection and economic empowerment of vulnerable categories of workers, including domestic workers, rural women and refugee women. Jordan and Morocco have issued specific legislation covering domestic workers, which previously fell outside the scope of labour legislation. While these frameworks have lower standards than the generic labour law, it is envisaged that these measures will help to formalise the domestic worker sector and empower domestic workers. Morocco is the only case study country that covers agriculture sector workers in its labour code. It has also issued a law granting equal access to collective lands for women and men. Tunisia has amended its legislation to extend the social protection system to different categories of rural women. The legal situation of refugees in the region remains extremely complicated, with host countries facing difficulties in providing them with decent work opportunities. Women refugees face additional challenges in this regard. Jordan and Egypt are therefore implementing innovative initiatives to provide livelihood opportunities for women refugees.

The case studies examine how and why the reforms or initiatives came about, the actors involved and how the reforms are being/will be implemented, as well as highlighting key success factors. The information shared in the case studies has been discussed extensively with stakeholders in the respective countries (Annex A at the end of the report contains a list of resource persons in each country; Annexes B, C and D describe the methodological process). The chapter also includes boxes that analyse initiatives targeting vulnerable women based on desk review.1 Some boxes highlight tools that can aid legislators and policy makers in engaging in such reforms. Finally, the chapter makes some policy recommendations based on the lessons from the case studies and research.

Domestic workers are employed in the homes of others to provide a range of domestic services: to clean, wash clothes and dishes, shop, cook, care for children or the elderly, sick and disabled, and/or perform other services such as gardening, driving and security. In the MENA region, there is high demand for domestic work. The concentration of migrant domestic workers in the region is especially high in the Gulf countries, while in North Africa the share of migrant workers as a proportion of all workers is below 1.5%. The vast majority of MENA’s domestic workers are informally employed and the majority of them are female (ILO, 2015[2]). These workers are highly vulnerable and at significant risk of harassment, often sexual (Chapter 1). One survey conducted by the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD) indicated that almost 97% of them had no job contract and that over 14% claimed to have been victims of sexual abuse at work (Bougeurra, 2017[3]). Many domestic workers are underage – mainly girls (Box 3.1).

There are a number of ILO Conventions that address domestic work. The most relevant is ILO Convention 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers, ratified by 27 countries worldwide, none of them MENA countries. ILO Convention 138 on Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour are ILO Core Conventions – they have been ratified by all four countries covered by this publication.2

The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that in most MENA countries, domestic workers are not covered by the national labour law. Some countries in the region, including Morocco and Jordan, have recently issued specific legislation covering domestic workers, but it has lower standards than the generic labour law (ILO, 2017[6]). Jordan can be considered as a pioneer on legal frameworks protecting domestic workers in the region. In 2008, Jordan amended its labour code to repeal a provision that excluded domestic workers from its scope of application. Following this amendment, regulations were issued covering the obligations of domestic workers and their employers as well as the organisation of private offices for recruiting and hiring non-Jordanian domestic workers. However, some of these legal provisions are not in line with ILO standards on domestic workers and have not been fully implemented. The Ministry of Labour continues to receive a large number of complaints from domestic workers, including on unpaid and illegal deduction of wages, forced overtime, restrictions on freedom of movement, identity paper retention, threats and physical violence.

Tunisia’s recent law on violence prohibits economic exploitation, which can take the form of hazardous and degrading work, including domestic work (discussed in Case Study 4.4 in Chapter 4).

Case Study 3.1 analyses Morocco’s recent efforts to guarantee minimum standards for domestic workers, mostly women. The country recently adopted a legislative framework on domestic workers. While this framework has lower standards than the generic labour law, it is envisaged that these measures will help to formalise the domestic workers sector and empower domestic workers. Box 3.2 outlines the key role played by labour inspectors in enforcing standards and identifying vulnerable women, and suggests that greater support and training are required for them to fulfil this role.

A variety of international organisations and civil society actors in Morocco have been raising the issue of child domestic workers in Morocco since the late 1990s. Human Rights Watch reported that these child domestic workers, some of them only eight years old, have been verbally abused by their employers and are not getting decent meals. Some of them work 12 hours a day, seven days a week for only around EUR 9 a month (Human Rights Watch, 2018[7]). This also makes it impossible for them to attend school. While child labour is prohibited in the Moroccan labour code, it does not cover domestic workers. In addition, domestic workers are often informally recruited and in many cases do not have a written employment contract.

In the early 2000s, the ILO and Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a range of reports which mentioned that even though the number of child domestic workers in Morocco is decreasing, many girls employed as domestic workers were still working in terrible conditions (Understanding Children’s Work (UCW) Project, 2004[8]; Human Rights Watch, 2005[9]) (Box 3.1). In 2012, HRW issued another report calling for improvements to the situation of child domestic workers in Morocco (Human Rights Watch, 2012[4]). While the report recognised the efforts of the Moroccan Government in addressing child domestic work, it mentioned that more remained to be done, including enhancing the legal protection of child domestic workers. It urged the government to speed up the process of adopting a draft domestic workers law and to bring its provisions into line with ILO standards on domestic workers. In response to a request from parliament, the Moroccan National Human Rights Council (CNDH) also issued an assessment and recommendations on the draft law, which reflect some of HRW’s recommendations.3 Several trade unions and civil society organisations were involved in the drafting process, supported by UN agencies.

In response to the pressure from the international community, the Moroccan Parliament approved the domestic workers law in 2016, which entered into force in October 2018.4 The law starts by defining domestic work(er) and employer. It then includes a list of tasks that are considered domestic work. The law foresees that a contract should be drawn up between the domestic worker and its employer, based on a specific contract model set by decree.5 One copy of the employment contract should be given to the relevant labour inspectorate so that labour inspectors can check the content of the contract against the law.

The law sets the minimum age for a domestic worker at 18 years. However, a transition period of five years is foreseen during which youths between 16 and 18 years can be employed under the condition that they have written authorisation from their guardians. The law specifies the type of hazardous work that is prohibited for young people between 16 and 18 and an additional decree further completes this list.6

The law states that the employer must take all necessary steps to ensure that the security, health and dignity of their domestic worker is guaranteed. The maximum work hours are fixed at 48 hours per week (and 40 hours for workers between 16 and 18 years of age). The law also regulates weekly rest, nursing breaks, and leave. It specifies that the salary cannot be less than 60% of the minimum wage applied in industry, trade and liberal professions. In-kind benefits cannot be counted as components of the cash salary. The law protects the domestic worker in case of dismissal, and foresees that domestic workers can benefit from education and training programmes provided by the state.

Domestic workers and their employers can file complaints with the labour inspection unit if the employment contract is not properly implemented. The labour inspection unit will then attempt to mediate. If mediation is not successful, the inspector can transfer the case to a Public Prosecutor’s office. If found to be violating the law, employers can face financial penalties and possibly imprisonment. The Prosecutor’s office issued a circular in December 2018 to encourage the enforcement of the law. The circular calls for communication with all parties concerned, including labour inspectors. The circular also instructs one or more prosecutors to receive in each court the requests and cases related to the law.

In 2019, a decree came into force which obliges employers of domestic workers to register their personnel with the National Social Security Fund (CNSS). It foresees that social security contributions will be covered by both the employer and the employee. In this way, domestic workers will be able to benefit from the same social security benefits as private sector employees (Medias24, 2019[10]; ALM, 2019[11]). Other MENA countries that have specific social protection schemes for the domestic work sector include Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia (ILO, 2016[12]).

Improving conditions for domestic workers is difficult since it concerns a complex working relationship7 that takes place in the home and involves vulnerable categories of workers. Morocco has shown serious commitment in addressing the situation of its domestic workers. The reform is a result of many years of advocacy and negotiation, backed up by evidence of the dire situation of many domestic workers in the country. The new legislative framework on domestic workers is a great step forward and should contribute significantly to the greater empowerment of female domestic workers, who were previously excluded from the labour law and lacking in any kind of protection. Domestic workers can now benefit from minimum standards for example wages and leave. In addition, they can also take advantage of social security benefits.

The real impact of the law remains to be seen as it will largely depend on whether employers draw up contracts with their domestic workers; whether and how labour inspectors investigate compliance; and whether non-compliance with the law is addressed. Currently, there are no up-to-date figures available of how many domestic workers have already been registered in Morocco.

Detailed analysis by Human Rights Watch and a number of national organisations finds that the legislative framework on domestic workers in Morocco could be improved further (Human Rights Watch, 2018[7]). A number of recommendations issued by HRW and CNDH on the draft domestic workers law were not taken into consideration in the final version of the law. Key concerns are as follows:

  • First and foremost, the law should provide at least the same guarantees to domestic workers as to other categories of workers covered by the Moroccan labour code. The Moroccan labour code fixes the maximum hours of work at 44 hours per week while the domestic workers law fixes this at 48 hours.

  • The minimum wage for domestic workers can be 40% less for workers in other specified sectors.

  • The domestic workers law does not mention freedom of association,8 which is guaranteed by the constitution and the labour code.

  • A major challenge in ensuring compliance is that Moroccan labour inspectors are not allowed to enter a private premises (home) to inspect the situation of domestic workers (Box 3.2). And even if they are allowed to do so, they may need additional training on how to carry out inspections of domestic workers.

  • The complaint mechanism provided for in the domestic workers law is not adequate for securing proper access to justice in case of dispute and labour inspectors are not the right actors for ensuring mediation between the different parties involved in a conflict.

It is recommended that Morocco ratify the ILO Convention 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers, which could be an impetus for further protection of domestic workers rights. ILO has specific tools such as a manual (ILO, 2012[13]) to promote this convention and to help countries in moving from ratification to implementation.

Awareness-raising campaigns are underway for both Moroccans and expats to register their domestic workers and to respect the provisions of the new legislative framework. It may be beneficial to provide incentives to employers and provide support for them to register their domestic workers.

While rural exodus is a fact in the MENA region as part of the economies’ structural transformation, 35% of the population still lives in rural areas (compared to 20% in OECD countries) and the agricultural sector contributes significantly to some MENA economies (World Bank, 2018[15]; World Bank, 2017[16]). Agriculture is a job-rich sector but working conditions are often poor. It is typically an informal sector, often not covered by the country’s labour laws and most workers lack access to comprehensive social protection systems.

Rural women face many challenges in the agricultural sector, including in the MENA region. They often have extremely heavy workloads since they combine physically demanding farm work (often in a family context and without a decent salary) with unpaid care work. Rural women face greater challenges than rural men in accessing education and information, social protection, productive resources (e.g. land; Box 3.6), markets, financial services and technology (FAO/CTA/IFAD, 2014[17]). Rural women are generally also disadvantaged compared to their urban peers. Traditional norms and stereotypes are more entrenched in rural areas, leading to very limited inclusion of women in leadership at the local level and limited decision-making power within their families (Chapter 1) (FAO, 2019[18]).

MENA countries have made significant efforts recently to improve the situation of rural women, who are often operating in the informal sector and are excluded from any legal protection (Box 3.3). The case studies show the following progress being made:

  • Building the evidence base. Countries have invested in building the evidence base for reform in favour of rural women. This is particularly important in countries where agriculture still contributes significantly to GDP, such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. The four countries have produced data on rural women as well as on women in agriculture (Case Study 3.2); however, more regular data collection and analysis are needed that are comparable over time and between countries. UN agencies such as UN Women, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the FAO and the ILO have supported countries in producing specific reports on rural women in the four countries. It would be good if this effort can be sustained over time with regular reports.

  • Making social protection more easily available to rural women. For example, initiatives have been taken in Tunisia to facilitate rural women’s social protection coverage (Case Study 3.2), and in Egypt (Box 3.5). The social and solidarity economy concept also offers a lot of potential to rural women. Agricultural co-operatives and women producers’ organisations are part of this concept and can offer support services to their members and complement social security services offered by the state. A draft law on the concept is underway in Tunisia (Case Study 3.2) and Morocco’s Agriculture Plan (Plan Vert Maroc) includes a pillar on solidarity agriculture (Box 3.3). In Egypt, a campaign to ensure that rural women have citizenship status has vastly increased their access to a range of social benefits (Box 3.4). Some private-sector initiatives are also providing rural women with better working conditions (Box 3.5).

  • Facilitating women’s access to land. One of the biggest challenges for women in rural areas is their limited access to land. Box 3.6 describes the land access situation in MENA. Case Study 3.3 on Soulaliyate women in Morocco analyses how grassroots women managed to join forces and make their voices heard in the national debates on collective land. As a result of these advocacy efforts, the law granted equal access to collective land for Soulaliyate women.

Article 14 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) obliges countries to address the specific challenges that rural women face. The article states that rural women have a variety of rights, including the right to benefit directly from social security programmes; to obtain all types of training and education; to organise self-help groups and co-operatives in order to obtain equal access to economic opportunities; and to have access to agricultural credit and loans, marketing facilities, appropriate technology and equal treatment in land and agrarian reform as well as in land resettlement schemes. The 62nd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62) in 2018 was themed “Empowering rural women and girls” (UN Women, 2018[19]). This may have influenced the increased focus in MENA on this area. All four countries organised side-events at CSW62, which gave visibility to their initiatives in support of rural women (UN Women, 2018[20]).

In Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia, agriculture workers are not covered by the labour code. This means that in practice the agriculture sector is largely informal and its workers do not benefit from the necessary legal protection. The Moroccan labour code covers agriculture sector workers and includes specific provisions for their situation.

Agriculture constitutes 9.5% of GDP in Tunisia, a little above the MENA average of 6% (World Bank, 2017[16]). With 32% of Tunisian women and girls living in rural areas (Tunisian Ministry of Woman, Family and Childhood, 2017[26]) it makes a lot of sense to address the challenges faced by rural women as a matter of priority.

The social protection system in Tunisia is complex and quite advanced. A myriad of legislative frameworks regulates the social protection regimes that apply to the agriculture sector, covering both salaried agricultural workers and self-employed farmers.9 Despite these different regimes, women do not adequately benefit from them. One survey showed that only 10.5% of rural women reported being personally affiliated to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) (UN Women/European Commission, 2016[27]). This is because the majority of them are already covered by social protection through their husbands. In addition, in order to benefit from certain social protection regimes in the agriculture sector, a minimum of 45 worked days per trimester is required while most women only work an average of 35 days per trimester.

As described in this case study, Tunisia has recently introduced a range of initiatives to improve the situation of rural women under the strong leadership of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Family, Children and Seniors.

Following a number of studies that laid out the situation of rural women in the country, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Family, Children and Seniors took the lead in developing a National Strategy for the Economic and Social Empowerment of Rural Women and Girls 2017-2020.10 The strategy consists of five pillars and also includes an action plan to implement it:

  1. 1. Economic empowerment: school-to-work transitions and skills mismatches, improved access to resources (including land) and markets, formalisation of the informal sector and promotion of the social and solidarity economy.

  2. 2. Social empowerment: reduce school dropout, improve access to decent work (pay equity, social protection, better working conditions).

  3. 3. Participation in public life and local governance.

  4. 4. Improved quality of life.

  5. 5. Production of data and statistics: data disaggregated by sex and location (rural/urban) for use in the design and evaluation of development plans.

Recently, important actions have been taken to improve the social protection of rural women in line with the strategy:

  • In 2018, the Tunisian Head of Government introduced a Rural Women Week, which will take place every year at the occasion of the International Day of Rural Women (15 October). This will be the opportunity to raise awareness of the situation of rural women in the country and join efforts in addressing their challenges.

  • A circular11 was issued in 2018 to allow unemployed youth to rent land from the state. The Tunisian Head of Government announced that this circular will be amended so that at least 20% of this land will be earmarked for rural women (WMC/TAP, 2018[28]).

  • In 2019 a decree was amended to extend the social protection system to different categories of rural women. Decree 916-2002 was amended in 2019 to ensure that rural women who currently do not benefit from any form of social protection will also be able to benefit from the social protection regime of Law n°2002-32 (WMC, TAP, 2019[17]). This should help to formalise the informal sector more broadly.

  • The Ahmini programme, launched in May 2019, is a collaboration between the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Family, Children and Seniors, Tunisia Telecom and NSSF. The programme aims to register an additional 500 000 rural women with the NSSF, as they are currently not covered by any social protection programme. A simplified process to register with NSSF has been put into place, so that beneficiaries no longer have to submit a birth certificate. Once registered, contributions to NSSF can be paid by mobile phone (WebManagerCenter, 2018[29]). A team of analysts has been assigned to manage the users and register them in the social security system via a user-friendly digital platform. Women will then be able to pay their subscription via mobile phone to Tunisian Post, which will send the information to NSSF (Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture, 2018[30]).

In 2011, Tunisia began to implement a range of initiatives under the social and solidarity economy (SSE) concept.12 SSE was acknowledged in Tunisia’s Development Plan 2016-2020, with the objective of increasing the population involved in SSE from 0.5% to 1.5% by 2020 (Ministère du Développement, de l'Investissement et de la Coopération Internationale de Tunisie, 2016[31]). SSE is relevant for the agriculture sector and for rural women in particular since the main forms of social and solidarity enterprises in Tunisia include agricultural co-operatives and agricultural producers’ organisations (Mbm Consulting, 2018[32]). These organisations offer a range of services to their members, which can support women farmers in particular. Currently, only 6% of Tunisian farmers are members of a co-operative, so there is still much room for improvement (FAO/BERD, 2019[33]). In order to better frame the SSE sector, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) submitted a draft law on SSE in 2016 (Ministère de la Formation Professionnelle et de l'Emploi de Tunisie, n.d.[34]). Civil society organisations have been advocating to include a gender approach in the law, which is currently gender-neutral. The draft law has not yet been adopted.

Tunisia is the only one of the four countries to have a specific strategy and action plan for rural women. Its Rural Women Strategy is comprehensive and addresses various aspects of the lives of rural women that require attention, including their economic empowerment. The strategy’s focus on data and statistics is important in order to be able to reflect the situation of rural women adequately. Implementation should be possible since the vast majority of financial resources have already been committed for this purpose. The strategy is linked to Tunisia’s National Economic and Social Development Plan 2016-2020. It would be important to also address the situation of rural women in other policies and plans, such as the national employment strategy, which is currently being developed.

It is too early to assess the impacts of the amendments to Decree 916-2002, as they only occurred in 2019. Gender equality activists in Tunisia look forward to the adoption of the social and solidarity economy draft law, so that rural women’s organisations can benefit from a legal framework as well as additional support services.

Morocco is one country in the region that has made recent progress in enhancing women’s access to land. This case study describes how the grassroots Soulaliyate movement emerged and how the movement has contributed to women’s equal rights over collective land.

The progress on women’s access to land in Morocco has to be placed in the context of the country’s unique system of land management. Almost 42% of land in Morocco is collective land – owned collectively by the community/tribe (World Bank, 2008[40]). This type of land is governed by a Royal Decree that dates back to 1919 and falls under the authority of the Ministry of Interior.15 At the community level, these lands are managed by an assembly of delegates, who have user rights over these lands. According to custom, generally only male heads of household have land user rights.16

Over time, more and more collective arable land has been individualised and handed over from the ethnic group as a whole to individual right holders from this group (“melkisation”). When this transfer happens, lists of “rights holders” are drawn up by the assembly of delegates of the community, under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior. In case of land transfer, compensation is paid to the other rights holders. As mentioned, women generally do not have user rights and hence do not benefit from this individualisation process.

Because of increased pressure on land and in line with Morocco’s agriculture policy (Plan Maroc Vert) (Inter-Réseaux Développement Rural, 2016[41]), collective land is increasingly being transferred to outsiders (for example for infrastructure and tourism projects). Often, these transfers are large-scale and thus have a big impact on the community. Communities receive different types of compensation in exchange for their land, including financial compensation or plots of land. Again, women do not have user rights, do not feature on the list of right holders and hence do not qualify for this compensation. This has led to conflicts in different communities about the criteria for featuring on lists of rights holders and being able to benefit from the compensation (Berriane, 2015[42]).

In 2007, a circular was issued to clarify the criteria for being a rights holder. This circular specified that the assembly of delegates should meet to agree on the criteria. It mentions that gender can be one of the criteria in defining a right holder, thus justifying the exclusion of women.

The 2007 circular sparked the emergence of a women’s movement (the Soulaliyate movement17) to demand women’s equal rights over collective land. The movement was supported by a range of organisations including the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM) and UN Women. The majority of women that are part of the Soulaliyate movement come from rural areas and few of them are educated (Ollivier, 2017[43]).

ADFM and UN Women have been building the capacities of the Soulaliyate women to lobby for their rights and to approach the leadership in their communities and their local authorities. A women’s caravane travelled through different areas of Morocco so that the women could see that they are not alone in their challenges and that women in other regions face similar issues. They also supported women to receive national identity cards so that they can register as land rights holders.

The movement has been advocating for over ten years for a law on collective land that recognises the equal rights of both women and men over these lands. As a result of the movement, in 2009, 2010 and 2012, several circulars were issued by the Ministry of Interior that gradually extended women’s access to land. The 2012 circular grants women and men equal rights in case of land transfer to outsiders as well as land transfer within the community. In 2014 and 2015, high-level national dialogues were held on collective land issues under the high patronage of the King. A series of recommendations emerged from these dialogues, including on equal land rights for women and men.

While these circulars are a good start, they do not have the same status as a law and can be revoked at any time. In 2017, a draft law18 was issued to modify the 1919 Royal Decree governing collective land. The draft law was approved by Parliament in July 2019 (Law No. 62.17). During the adoption process, the Council of Ministers mentioned that one of the purposes of the law is to bring the legislation in line with the provisions on gender equality as guaranteed in the constitution.

Law No. 62.17 is divided into seven parts with general dispositions, provisions to organise the Soulaliyate communities, provisions specific to the managing of the community lands, management of the Soulaliyate’s financial resources, administrative measures, punitive measures and general concluding dispositions. The aim of the law is to define the rules that govern the Soulaliyate and to manage its lands (Article 1). The law clearly states that men and women alike can enjoy the community asset and have an obligation to protect it (Article 6). It sets up a representative body, the Nuwab, in each Soulaliyate community made up of male and female Soulaliyate community members elected or agreed upon by community members. The Nuwab represents the Soulaliyate community in front of Moroccan courts and administrative bodies and implements decisions taken (Article 11). Article 31 states that in case of emergency, the Minister of Interior can take all necessary administrative and financial measures to preserve the land of the Soulaliyate community, after consulting with the Nuwab. Soulaliyate women from different communities have received land or financial compensation in case of melkisation or transfer of land to outsiders (UN Women, 2018[44]).

The Soulaliyate movement has had a major impact in Morocco – not only on women’s land rights but also by empowering women at the grassroots level and ultimately changing the power dynamics at the community level. ADFM notes that this process has led to the empowerment of the women involved, who initially did not dare to approach their community leaders.19 Step by step, their confidence has been built and some of them have emerged as leaders in their community, gaining a lot of respect. Their movement has also reached the national level, where the Soulaliyate women have advocated not only for their land rights but also for women’s rights more broadly. In addition, ADFM reports that in some communities, women are now also included in the local assembly of delegates that manage the land. This is a significant result since traditionally Moroccan local leadership structures do not include women. The Soulaliyate women have shown that feminism is not necessarily an elite movement but can emerge from the bottom-up.

A range of factors have led to the success of the movement. The interviews conducted for this case study show that a key success factor has been the tenacity and motivation of the women themselves.20 Most of them initially were not aware of their rights and lacked the confidence to approach the local authorities. Through capacity building efforts by ADFM and UN Women, they have managed to present their claims in a convincing way and gained small victories.

Over time, the women have become well connected to one other and realised that women in different parts of the country share the same concerns. The movement has consolidated and become active at the national level, where it has even secured backing from the King and decision makers at the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Interior was a key player in supporting the movement and giving instructions to local authorities through various circulars.

The Soulaliyate movement has also benefited from the wider debate around collective land in Morocco and the fact that the legislation regarding these lands is no longer in line with the realities on the ground and the need for individualisation and privatisation. The movement managed to include their claim for equal land rights in all the relevant recent draft laws on the reform of the collective lands system. An important factor in the implementation of these laws is the commitment by local authorities to gender equality. While in some regions, resistance to women’s equal land rights is high, in other communities the discussions have led to increased women’s access to land. When more women are part of these authorities, they will more easily take gender issues into consideration.

Over the past decade, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has grown significantly. Most of this increase is due to conflicts in and around the MENA region (including in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and South Sudan). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that Lebanon continues to host the largest number of refugees relative to its national population, followed by Jordan and Turkey. Egypt also hosts a large number of refugees, coming mostly from Syria and South Sudan. Women and girls account for almost half of the refugees globally (UNHCR, 2019[54]).

The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol are the most important global legal instruments covering refugees.21 The convention gives refugees the right to work and also mentions that refugees should be treated in the same way as nationals when it comes to “women’s work” (Art. 24.1a). Of the countries covered by this publication, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have ratified both the convention and the protocol. But in reality, the legal situation of refugees remains extremely complicated, with host countries facing difficulties in providing them with decent work opportunities.

The case study and boxes in this section show that refugee women in Jordan and Egypt face a range of challenges in finding decent work opportunities. Women have obtained only 4% of the work permits issued to Syrian refugees in Jordan (Jordanian Ministry of Labour - Syrian Refugee Unit, 2018[55]). It is estimated that in some areas of Jordan, up to 60% of women refugees are active in the informal sector. In Jordan’s refugee camps, the situation is different, and only an estimated 5-10% of women work (Ritchie, 2017[56]).

Refugee women who wish to engage in the labour market have many hurdles to overcome. They are constrained by traditional norms that confine women to the home and see certain types of work as inappropriate. Early marriages are common, with 43.7% of Syrian refugee girls in Jordan who were victims of early marriage in 2015 (Hikmat, 2017[57]). Refugee women also have difficulty combining family responsibilities with other forms of work. Women also face practical constraints such as transportation from the home to the workplace. Case Study 3.4 looks at a range of initiatives introduced into the Za’atari Refugee Camp – the biggest refugee camp in Jordan – to help Syrian women gain decent employment despite these many social and practical constraints. Box 3.7 continues the story of the Za’atari Refugee Camp, describing how a unique inter-agency partnership using blockchain technology is allowing women to be paid for their work despite lacking bank accounts or citizenship status.

Box 3.8 tells how Syrian women refugees in Egypt are benefitting from a number of initiatives – including government-run, private sector and some public-private partnerships – to help include them in the economy.

The “Jordan Compact” was adopted by Jordan and the international community at the 2016 London Conference as a response to the protracted displacement of Syrians in Jordan. An important objective of the Compact is to help Syrian refugees participate in the Jordanian labour market. As an outcome of the Compact, the Jordanian Government decided to waive the work permit fees for Syrian refugees in some occupations that are open to foreign workers and simplified the process for obtaining a permit. The follow-up conferences to the Jordan Compact, Brussels II (2018) and Brussels III (March 2019), recognised the importance of focusing on the situation of Syrian women refugees, including gender-based violence as well as their participation in the labour market (Council of the European Union, 2019[58]). Jordan and the international community have also issued the Jordan Response Plan for the Syria crisis 2018-2020 (JRP), which combines immediate and medium-term responses. Its chapter on livelihoods mentions the need for quality employment for different population groups, including women, and the chapter on social protection includes a focus on women.22

The legal framework that applies to the treatment of refugees in Jordan is unclear as Jordan is not a party to the 1951 Convention on Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. While the Constitution (Article 21 para.1) provides protection for political asylum seekers against extradition, no national legislation has been enacted which specifies this obligation in further detail or uses the term “refugee”.23

This case study illustrates the concrete implementation of the Compact and the JRP with a focus on the challenges that Syrian refugee women face in finding work opportunities. It draws on the specific situation of Syrian refugee women in the Za’atari Camp.24

The Za’atari Refugee Camp is the biggest refugee camp in Jordan. It was opened in 2012 and is located in the north of Jordan close to the Syrian border. It hosts around 80 000 refugees and covers 5.2 square kilometres, and is one of the largest centres of population in Jordan (Oxfam International, 2019[59]). While many of the original refugees have moved to other towns, those who stay are the most vulnerable, due to disabilities, illness or lack of financial means. Around one in five households in the camp are headed by women (UNHCR, 2018[60]; UNHCR, 2018[61]). The Ministry of Interior has established the Syrian Refugee Affairs Department, which is, together with UNHCR, responsible for the administration of Za’atari Camp.25

The inhabitants of Za’atari have restricted freedom of movement – they are only allowed to leave the camp when they have a valid work permit, but as most lack a valid work permit they have never left the camp since their arrival.26 Even if Za’atari residents do obtain a work permit, finding transport to their workplace is another challenge, especially for women. Residents have to first get from their district in the camp to the main entrance gate of the camp. Although there is a bus system inside the camp, it does not cover the whole area and only operates at limited times. Bicycles have therefore become the main means of transportation inside the camp, but only for men as it is not culturally accepted for a woman to ride a bike. Outside the camp, employers frequently organise transportation, yet the often long commutes involved are another obstacle for Za’atari’s women. Families fear for the safety of female relatives who are away long hours every day. And women’s domestic obligations – including childcare, care for elder family relatives, cooking and cleaning – mean they cannot spare the time involved in going to paid work.

In order to facilitate access to formal work possibilities for Syrian refugees outside Za’atari camp, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has opened an employment office in the camp, together with UNHCR and in co-operation with the Jordanian Government (ILO, 2017[62]).

Since Za’atari residents face significant challenges in obtaining work permits and arriving at their place of work, economic opportunities have been created inside Za’atari camp. Although most economic opportunities in Za’atari are directed to men and women alike, in practice, men mainly benefit from these policies, due to the social and practical constraints faced by Za’atari’s women. Many inhabitants of Za’atari come from rural Dara’a, a region in the south of Syria where traditional gender norms exist. Women of Dara’a usually do not work outside the home (Ritchie, 2017[56]).

In addition, strict rules and regulations restrict the types of employment opportunities in the camp. For example, tree planting and agricultural activities are not allowed because they are considered “permanent”, while the refugee camp should maintain a temporary status. Women who find work in the camp are often working for the first time in their life. It is a big challenge for them to juggle domestic and employment duties. Often they delegate tasks within the family to older daughters, but not to the husband. In many cases, they are reluctant to take advantage of a job opportunity when they fear the job is not considered appropriate for them. It requires a lot of creativity to design employment opportunities that are allowed in the camp and that also favour women. Some successful initiatives include:

  • Cash for work. UNHCR and various international partner organisations27 have joined forces to offer a cash-for-work programme for camp inhabitants. The work sectors include water, sanitation and hygiene education; child protection; community mobilisation; health, shelter, basic needs and livelihoods; and food (Basic Needs and Livelihoods Working Group, 2017[63]). However, work possibilities are limited. Of the camp’s 32 675 adult inhabitants, only 6 030 participate and only 26% of the jobs go to women (Basic Needs and Livelihoods Working Group, 2017[63]). In order to give as many families as possible the chance to benefit from the cash-for-work initiative, the majority of the positions are rotated and only one member of each family can participate in the initiative. Most families choose the husband, as head of the household, to take the opportunity since they are of the opinion that the wife should concentrate on domestic duties. Only where women head households or when the husband works outside the camp can women get the chance to participate.

  • Waste collection. One cash-for-work opportunity is the waste collection and recycling project carried out jointly by GIZ and Oxfam. Cash-for-work participants gather waste and bring it to a collection point within the camp where they sort the waste and sell valuable material such as plastic and paper for further recycling. This job was initially not an option for women, as it was seen to be culturally unacceptable to have women collecting waste in public, especially as it meant they would need to bend over in order to pick up rubbish. Nevertheless, a group of female heads of households were interested in this job opportunity. After a discussion between Oxfam/GIZ and the residents of Za’atari, a solution was found to integrate women into this work opportunity. Women were provided with trash picking tools to minimise the need to bend down, and those women who feel uncomfortable being seen collecting rubbish in the main streets can work in local residential areas. As a result, the number of women participants has increased significantly.

  • Lel Haya project. The Lel Haya project is an Oxfam initiative that is offered only for women refugees in Za’atari camp. Oxfam provides assistance but mainly lets women participants take the lead. The Lel Haya project28 involves transforming old UNHCR tents (which have been replaced by caravans) into fashionable bags. Unskilled women are trained to use a sewing machine and skilled participants can train others and learn management skills. The objective of this project is mainly to give women the opportunity to leave the house and acquire new skills. The economic outcome of this project is rather secondary, as the bags are not marketed widely. However, an economic aspect of this project did emerge as a Jordanian garment factory was interested in hiring project participants. The factory, in co-operation with the ILO, held a job fair within Za’atari camp in order to recruit young women (ILO, 2018[64]). The factory offered childcare incentives for each child under the age of four and the ILO planned to organise bus transport within the camp so that women could reach the main gate (ILO, 2018[64]). Despite the fact that many women showed interest initially, only a few women took up employment in the garment factory (Almasr, 2018[65]). And for those who did, many reported that the one-hour commute between the camp and the factory was too long given their domestic responsibilities. In addition, women, who are the designated recipients of cash aid from the Za’atari camp cash distribution centre, fear missing the cash distribution time when they work outside the camp.29

  • Oasis. UN Women runs the “Oasis” in Za’atari. The Oasis offers a range of services including literacy classes, skills training, daycare facilities and activities focused on addressing gender-based violence (UN Women, 2017[66]). The Oasis also includes a cash-for-work programme providing almost 200 female-focused cash-for-work opportunities every day (UN Women, 2016[67]). Unlike the other cash-for-work programmes, over 80% of opportunities are offered to women. These opportunities include administrative tasks, jobs as hairdressers, tailors, teachers, and daycare professionals. In 2018, in order to pay women refugees – who often lack access to the banking system – UN Women, in partnership with the World Food Programme, started the first inter-agency gender-responsive blockchain pilot, whereby women refugees are able to request cash back in contracted supermarkets or make purchases directly without the intervention of a third party such as a bank (Box 3.7 below). The women and men employed provide the camp’s population with free services (educational classes, hairdressing and makeup, tailoring). The tailoring programme prepares and distributes free baby kits to the camp’s maternity unit to provide parents with basic equipment for their new-born.

    Another potential avenue for helping Syrian refugee women enter the economy would be through establishing their own businesses. The Compact has largely focused on work permits and has therefore not adequately addressed the registration of Syrian businesses in Jordan. Despite recent progress on instituting home-based business regulations for Jordanians (USAID, 2017[68]), registering home-based businesses is almost impossible for Syrian refugees due to complicated requirements by the Jordanian Government.30 This is a particular constraint for Syrian refugee women, who would be interested in working in or close to home performing tasks such as sewing, cleaning and catering (Ritchie, 2017[56]). In fact, many of them already engage in these activities in the informal sector.

Jordan has been significantly affected by the Syrian crisis as it hosts the second highest share of refugees worldwide in comparison to its population. The country has taken steps not only to address the issue in the short term but also in the medium term, through the Jordan Compact and the Jordan Response Plan for the Syria crisis 2018-2020, supported by the international community.

The implementation of the Compact has been assessed in regular follow-up conferences, which have highlighted the many efforts used to employ Syrians in the formal labour market. Nevertheless, the vast majority of refugees still reside in Jordan without work permits and frequently join the informal job market, where they are more vulnerable to exploitation.

Syrian refugee women face additional challenges in entering the labour market. The follow-up conferences to the Jordan Compact have shown an increased focus on this topic and the JRP also mentions the issue. The initiatives described here took into account the barriers that women face in finding job opportunities and this led to encouraging results. When Syrian refugee women do get the opportunity to work, they not only contribute to the income of the family, but they also report greater empowerment. Za’atari women have reported a stronger position within their family since their participation in some of the camp’s projects. They also mention that the work helps them improve their social network within the camp, break the circle of isolation and gain additional skills (UN Women, 2016[67]).

In the MENA region and worldwide, there has been a shift from addressing the situation of women overall to addressing the situation of different groups of women, recognising that women are a heterogeneous group. This is a positive evolution since vulnerable groups of women may require targeted approaches.

The case studies in this chapter show that countries are taking steps to improve the protection and economic empowerment of vulnerable categories of workers, including domestic workers, rural women and refugee women. Firstly, countries are building the evidence base on the challenges that these groups are facing, which forms the basis for legal/policy reform in favour of vulnerable categories of women workers. Secondly, countries are working to bring some of these categories of workers into the mainstream economy by issuing legislation and policy frameworks that apply to specific groups of workers. Morocco and Jordan have issued specific legislation covering domestic workers, which previously fell outside of the scope of labour legislation. Tunisia has issued a specific strategy and action plan on rural women. Morocco’s legislation on land reforms has granted equal access to collective land for Soulaliyate women. The policy responses to the refugee crisis have shown increased attention to the situation of women refugees, both in Jordan and Egypt. Thirdly, countries are taking concrete initiatives to promote decent work opportunities for these categories of women. For example, initiatives have been taken in Egypt and Tunisia to facilitate rural women’s social protection coverage. Morocco and Tunisia are promoting the social and solidarity economy concept, which offers a lot of potential to rural women. Economic opportunities for women refugees are supported in Jordan and Egypt.

This momentum can be sustained through the following recommendations, which have emerged from the case studies:

  • Continue building the evidence base on vulnerable groups of women. This means disaggregating data not only by gender, but also by location, age, etc. and collecting, analysing and disseminating this data on a regular basis.

  • Work with social partners and the ILO towards ratifying the ILO conventions that focus on vulnerable categories of workers, such as the ILO convention on decent work for domestic workers (C189), which has not yet been ratified by any MENA country. Ratification will allow the ILO to support countries to align their national legislation with the ratified conventions.

  • Provide protection to categories of workers that fall outside the scope of the labour code. This can be done through issuing separate laws for specific categories of workers. These laws should guarantee the same rights as offered in the labour code.

  • Provide special attention to vulnerable groups in relevant policy frameworks:

    • Address the concerns of rural women through either issuing a specific rural women’s policy or mainstreaming gender throughout agricultural policies.

    • Continue to acknowledge the particular situation of refugee women in relevant policy documents related to refugees’ participation in the host countries’ labour market.

  • Make sure that more development co-operation programmes and projects are implemented in remote areas in order to reach vulnerable rural populations.

  • Continue efforts to formalise the informal economy with a focus on sectors where women are predominantly present, while also allowing informal sector workers to adhere to social protection schemes. Make registration for social protection schemes easier by simplifying the registration procedures and requirements and by using technology.

  • Make labour inspections in rural areas and private premises possible and train labour inspectors in investigating the specific situation of agricultural and domestic workers, especially women.


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[36] World Bank (2018), Agriculture, forestry, and fishing, value added (% of GDP) - Egypt, Arab Rep., World Bank, Washington DC, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NV.AGR.TOTL.ZS?locations=EG.

[15] World Bank (2018), Rural population (% of total population), https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.RUR.TOTL.ZS?view=map (accessed on 13 May 2020).

[16] World Bank (2017), Agriculture, forestry, and fishing, value added (% of GDP), https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NV.AGR.TOTL.ZS.

[40] World Bank (2008), Marchés Fonciers pour la Croissance Economique au Maroc. Volume I - Héritage et Structures Foncières au Maroc. Les Contraintes Structurelles et Institutionnelles à l’Emergence d’un Marché Efficient du Foncier au Maroc, The World Bank, Washington DC, http://documents.banquemondiale.org/curated/fr/639221468274187453/pdf/499700v10P11651age0foncier0Mai02008.pdf.


← 1. Table 1 at the start of this report contains an “at-a-glance” summary of all the themes of the case studies and in-depth boxes.

← 2. For details of all the ILO conventions and their ratification status by the four countries covered here, see Annex 2.A in Chapter 2.

← 3. The CNDH assessment and recommendations are available in French at: https://cndh.org.ma/sites/default/files/documents/CNDH_-_AVIS_FR_Travail_domestique-_.pdf.

← 4. Loi n°19-12 des travailleuses et travailleurs domestiques.

← 5. Décret n° 2-17 355 du 31 août 2017 fixant le modèle du contrat de travail de la travailleuse ou du travailleur domestique.

← 6. Décret n° 2-17-356 du 27 septembre 2017 complétant la liste des travaux dans lesquels il est interdit d'employer les travailleuses et travailleurs domestiques âgés entre 16 à 18 ans.

← 7. ILO carried out studies of needs, motivations and concerns of domestic workers and their employers in different MENA countries including Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait. Based on the findings of this research, the ILO report Domestic Workers and Employers in the Arab States proposes a number of practical solutions on how regulations can balance the needs of domestic workers and their employers (ILO, 2017[6]). While the study concludes that the most important measure to take is to make sure that domestic workers are covered by the labour legislation and that there are mechanisms for law enforcement in place, the study also proposes other creative strategies.

← 8. Freedom of association is a fundamental right for different groups of workers. Including this right in the domestic workers law would allow for the possibility for these workers to create their own sectoral workers associations. These associations will allow them to make their voices heard and enter into a dialogue with other stakeholders in the country in order to improve their situation.

← 9. Workers active in the agricultural sector in Tunisia can be covered by different social protection regimes and legislative frameworks: Agricultural salaried workers are covered by Law n° 81-6 of 1981; small farmers that are self-employed, are covered by Decree n° 95-1166 of 1995. However, they can also opt for the regime of Law n° 2002-32 of 2002 and its application decree 916-2002.

← 10. The full strategy is not available online, only a summary in French is available at: http://www.femmes.gov.tn/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Presentation_Strategie_FR_2017-2020.pdf.

← 11. The circular was published in Flehetna (2018), “Kairouan : Mesures d’attribution des terres domaniales aux diplômés chômeurs”, available at : https://www.flehetna.com/fr/kairouan-mesures-dattribution-des-terres-domaniales-aux-diplomes-chomeurs.

← 12. According to the ILO, SSE refers to enterprises and organisations (co-operatives, mutual benefit societies, associations, foundations and social enterprises) which produce goods, services and knowledge that meet the needs of the community they serve through the pursuit of specific social and environmental objectives and the fostering of solidarity.

← 13. The strategy is available at https://www.sekem.com/en/societal-life/empowering-women-gender-strategy.

← 14. For further details, visit https://egypt.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2019/04/the-business-case-for-improving-women-working-conditions-in-the-agribusiness-sector-in-egypt.

← 15. Dahir du 26 Rejeb 1337 (27 Avril 1919) organisant la tutelle administrative des collectivités indigènes et réglementant la gestion et l’aliénation des biens collectifs

← 16. The exact details of these customs may vary slightly from one collective entity to another. In addition, girls and women often do not have identity cards, which is a requirement for the registration of land rights. This is a consequence of the fact that fathers often only register the boy child and do not register the girl child.

← 17. The term Soulala refers to the ethnic genealogy that ties the members of a collectivity to this collectivity.

← 18. Proposition de loi modifiant le dahir du 26 rejeb 1337 (27 Avril 1919) organisant la tutelle administrative des collectivités ethniques et réglementant la gestion et l'aliénation des terres collectives.

← 19. Information based on interview with Rabéa Naciri, Activist, founding member of ADFM and OMDH.

← 20. OECD conducted interviews in Rabat with Abderrazzak El Hannouchi, Head of cabinet, National Council for Human Rights (CNDH), Amina Lotfi, Former Programme Coordinator of UN Women Maghreb, Former President of Democratic Association of Morcocan Women (ADFM) and Rabéa Naciri, Activist, founding member of ADFM and the Moroccan Organisation for Human Rights (OMDH).

← 21. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html.

← 22. For details, see https://jordankmportal.com/resources/jordan-response-plan-2018-2020.

← 23. The only legal framework under which Jordan deals with refugees is the Memorandum of Understanding, signed in 1998 between Jordan and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The memorandum allows UNHCR to provide international protection to persons falling within its mandate. According to the Memorandum of Understanding, Jordan accepts the 1951 Convention’s definition of the term “refugee”, the principle of non-refoulement (that forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in likely danger of persecution) and the fact that refugees should receive treatment according to international standards. At the same time, Jordan avoids recognising refugees officially in its domestic laws. It refers to Syrian refugees as “visitors”, which emphasises the temporary nature of their stay.

← 24. The publication team visited the camp in October 2018. The visit was organised by the Oxfam Jordan Office. Focus group discussions were organised with beneficiaries and managers of the various economic support services for women.

← 25. Further management of the camp is referred by the Government to the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organisation. Several international organisations support the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organisation in the management of the camp and provide a variety of services within the camp (e.g. UNHCR, UNICEF, UN Women, UNOPS, UNFPA, Oxfam, WFP, IOM, ACTED, GIZ, Care, Save the Children).

← 26. Although Jordanians might be aware of the existence of their fourth biggest city, they do not have the opportunity to visit this area and hence have no possibility to exchange with its inhabitants. Any entry into the camp is individually investigated.

← 27. UNICEF, UNOPS, UN Women, UNFPA, WFP, IOM, ACTED, Oxfam, JEN, Relief International, IRD, International Rescue Committee, Questscope, Act Alliance, Save the Children, International Medical Corps, Mercy Corps, KnK Japan, The Lutheran World Federation, Save the Children, Norwegian Refugee Council, Noor Al Hussein Foundation.

← 28. The participating women chose the project’s name, “lel haya” (for “the life”), as they reported that it was through the project that they started to feel useful again and their life got new meaning.

← 29. Every month, refugees in the Za’atari camp receive JOD 20 from the World Food Programme.

← 30. The requirements include: proof of bank collateral of JOD 100 000-300 000, residency through passport stamps and residency cards, and security clearance.

← 31. For further details see www.oecd.org/finance/OECD-Blockchain-Primer.pdf.

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