Turkey, the world’s leading host of refugees, has finally granted work permits to its Syrian refugees, whose number has now reached 2.4mn. The new policy is intended not only to keep migrant flows inside Turkey – as the European Union hopes – but also to supply skills badly needed in the labour market.
The move should also enable refugees who have fled to Turkey to escape civil war to have decent life conditions in the country, rather than begging for money on the streets or working under illegal and often abusive conditions.
The publication of the regulation in the official gazette on January 15 is not expected to damage the job market in Turkey by leading to a hike in unemployment; instead it could fill the need for unskilled or low-skilled labour in some sectors.
Up to now, refugees in Turkey were not allowed to legally work without a valid work permit, pushing them to work illegally and for very low wages.
According to the regulation, newly arrived refugees will be able to apply for a work permit six months after having obtained temporary protection status. They would have to be paid at least the minimum wage. And those who illegally employ refugees without a work permit will be sanctioned with a penalty.
As a safety net, the number of refugees holding a work permit in a workplace must not exceed 10% of the total number of its employees, in a bid to alleviate concerns of Turkish workers who would feel disadvantaged in an already crowded labor market.
In workplaces where there has been a shortage of workers in the last four weeks before an application is being considered, the 10% quota can be dropped.
Public perception critical
In an exclusive press statement provided to bne IntelliNews, the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Ankara Office highly welcomed the move, saying it would bring wider benefits to the economy.
ILO believes that the decrease in informal jobs, with the integration of Syrians into the labour market, will also benefit Turkish workers by halting the downward trend of wages and working conditions.
“Having refugees work informally, means that they are outside social protection regimes and will not pay income tax as their wages are undeclared. Therefore, they are not contributing to the tax regime that helps support government services, such as health and education, and this is one of the challenges that governments face,” the statement reads.
“High refugee populations need access to basic services. Moving away from humanitarian aid towards self-reliance and sustainable development through access to formal employment means that refugees contribute financially to the services they consume,” it adds.
According to the latest estimates of the Turkish Confederation of Employer Associations (TISK), about 400,000 Syrians are working illegally in Turkey, and many of them are children.
ILO asks for the involvement of trade unions and civil society to raise awareness and reassure communities – especially during the early stages of the policy – about the main advantages of this new system by sharing some success stories of job creation or improvement in the quality of employment.
“Public perception is critical and the government and social partners must be in tune with what is happening on the ground and be prepared to respond rapidly and effectively in situations of challenges arising,” the statement says.
According to ILO, opening to refugees in some key sectors, such as agriculture, which require more migrant workers, may lead to increased productivity, profitability and stimulate investment opportunities, as well as possible job creation if sectors and geographical areas to employ Syrians are carefully planned by the authorities.
Eda Bekci, an Izmir-based lawyer who works on refugee issues, agrees and said that the concerns about potential unemployment hikes with this regulation are groundless because out of 2.4mn Syrian refugees, only some 500.000 of them are entitled to enter the job market.
“The grant of work permits to Syrian refugees in sectors like sheep herding, which is not much in demand by Turkish nationals, would boost employment rates especially in Turkey’s eastern provinces where stockbreeding is practiced intensively,” Bekci tells bne IntelliNews.
Hikmet Tanriverdi, president of Istanbul Textile and Ready-Made Clothing Exporters' Association (IHKIB), is cautiously optimistic about the potential impact of the regulation.
“We face serious difficulties in finding unqualified and low-skilled workers in western provinces of the Marmara region for the ready-made clothing and manufacturing sectors because people tend to take jobs in the ever-growing services sector,” Tanriverdi tells bne IntelliNews.
According to Tanriverdi, if Syrian workers are employed in the low-skilled and unqualified areas such as night shift work, people will be able to expand their business and demand more qualified workers.
“However, with the rise of the minimum wage by 30%, people will restart searching for jobs, and the employment of Syrian refugees in the eastern provinces may create unemployment in the eastern provinces of the country and in the small towns having a shortage of employment opportunities,” he said.
Turkey recently increased the minimum wage to 1,300 Turkish Liras (about $430) for more than 5mn workers. The latest labour market statistics for October 2015, published by the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), showed that the general unemployment rate in Turkey hovers around 10.6%.
In October, Brussels and Ankara agreed on a deal under which Turkey committed to halt the flow of Syrian migrants to European shores in return for a $3.3bn aid package for better integrating Syrians and providing them with more incentives to stay in Turkey.
However, in new research by Ankara-based Hacettepe University’s Centre for Migration and Political Studies (HUGO), 44% of the population in Syrian-populated provinces of Turkey is against the employment of Syrians in Turkey, while in other provinces the number is 48%.