Exploited and underpaid: Female breadwinners struggle to make a living in northwest Syria
However, women face ruthless exploitation as employees, due in part to their fragile position in society and abject material circumstances, and to the lack of decent jobs, which prevents them from demanding better working conditions or wages.
This is all against a backdrop of a vastly overcrowded job market in northwest Syria, where unscrupulous employers can easily find alternative, cheap labour rather than improve workers' conditions.
Poverty pay at a fig-packing plant
Despite the low wages and the long hours, Majda Al Karid (35) is keen to keep her job at a dry fig packing plant. She needs the small pay packet she receives every week to cover some of the expenses of her five children and husband – who was left disabled when his right foot was amputated after their town Khan Shaykhun was bombed in late 2017.
"Thousands of Syrian women have been left the sole breadwinners for families, after losing their husbands either through death, imprisonment, emigration, divorce or separation"
Today, Majda and her family live in an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in Afrin. She said she searched for a job for months before finding this one, and despite the demanding nature of the job, both physically and mentally, and the long hours, none of this stopped her from quickly applying to and accepting the job.
Majda says her meagre wage isn't enough to cover "half our living costs, but it's better than nothing – as 'a small pebble can hold up a jar'," (a Syrian proverb meaning "a little can go a long way"). In her eyes, working is necessary even if the wage is small. Majda's daily tasks begin in the early morning and finish in the evening.
Her job is to clean and sort the dried figs – first, she separates them into different categories – black and white; big and small; and discard the rotten ones. Then she washes each variety with water mixed with chemicals to clean the fruits. Then the figs are dried and packed into sets of half a kilo or a kilo – before being packaged in tins and boxes ready for sale in local markets, or export to Turkey.
Majda says the work is arduous and it is a struggle to complete all her tasks each day. Moreover, the 300 Turkish lira she earns weekly (equivalent to $16) "hardly covers the cost of bread and a few vegetables – it isn't nearly enough when you consider [a family's] expenses and the high living costs now."
Exploitation by bosses
Majda works with more than 20 other women, who share the same tiring conditions and low wages. Many factory owners have exploited the surge in the number of women looking for employment to provide for their families – and deliberately employ large numbers of women on ultra-low wages as they believe they will achieve faster production rates at a lower cost.
Majda doesn't dare protest at the low wages because of the risk that she will be sacked by the plant owner, who exploits the fact that the women he employs have extremely limited options to suppress any attempt they make to object to the wages and conditions he has set.
"Many factory owners have exploited the surge in the number of women looking for employment to provide for their families – and deliberately employ large numbers of women on ultra-low wages"
However, low wages are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues faced by female breadwinners in northwest Syria - which is in the midst of a severe economic recession. For instance, the areas of work open to women in northwest Syria, especially IDPs and those with no academic qualifications, are predominantly menial, physically demanding jobs which lack health and social insurance. In addition to this, there is no legislation in place to protect basic employment rights.
Deteriorating health due to working conditions
Fatima Al Jarrah's husband died in late 2021 after contracting coronavirus, leaving her the sole income provider for her elderly mother and two children. With no one to support her, Fatima (32) was forced to seek work and found a job at a yoghurt (laban) and cheese-making factory in Sarmada town in northern Idlib (the family had fled their village, Sahel al-Ghab, in 2020). The work is hard and for it, Fatima earns a poverty wage of no more than $5 per day.
Fatima works for over six hours a day, starting early in the morning with her colleagues when the factory owner brings in the barrels of milk. The workers begin by boiling and sterilising the milk in order to turn it into yoghurt and various types of cheeses. Fatima gained her yoghurt and cheese-making skills as she used to breed cows, before she had to leave her home and lost her herds and livelihood, because of repeated bombings, which saw her and her family displaced to northwest Syria.
After starting the job, Fatima has begun to suffer from numerous health issues: numbness and tingling in various muscles, and lower back pain. She has also suffered other nerve problems like weakness in her legs, ankles and foot muscles. She believes the pains are due to the strenuous daily work and the four-kilometre walk each day to the factory from her home in Dana IDP camp. She has to walk because the factory owner doesn’t arrange transport, and Fatima can't afford private transport – the cost would exceed her daily wage.
Aside from the issues of exploitation, poverty pay, and exhausting work, women in northwest Syria face yet another obstacle when it comes to providing for their families – societal condemnation. Widows going to work are viewed with suspicion by the patriarchal society and are closely monitored by a community which sees women working as shameful and going against traditional norms. Besides this, female breadwinners often have no choice but to neglect their homes and leave their children alone for long hours with no one looking after them.
Worrying about children left alone
Fadia Al Karmo (39) works with around 15 other women in a small broom-making factory. She is forced to leave her three young children alone at home while she is working – though the oldest is only nine. Her husband died in a regime prison in 2018, and her family was displaced from Tell Mannas in southern Idlib to Azaz Camp in Aleppo province. Fadia describes the situation for female workers like her as getting "a bite soaked in blood" – a reference to how gruelling these jobs are, compared to the tiny wage in return.
She explains that her job is to sort out the straw, before combing and softening it ready for making the brooms. The work demands skill and precision, but she is always worrying about how her children are managing alone, which adds a lot of psychological pressure to the daily burden on her shoulders. Aside from that, is the stress of how to satisfy the factory owner who is always nagging her and her colleagues despite their paltry wages of 60 Turkish lira per day ($3).
Social worker Baraa Al Hassoun (40) says: "Female breadwinners, whether widows or divorcees, unmarried or separated or those who have husbands unable to provide for their families due to disability or poor health, are among the most vulnerable groups in society. They are subjected to marginalisation, social stigma, and high levels of poverty."
Hassoun attributes the poverty of families in which women are the income generators to several reasons. These include, she says, low educational levels, and a lack of vocational qualifications and skills, which might qualify them for better-paid positions or salaried jobs. She emphasises that another problem is that the jobs available are mostly physically arduous and can be damaging to women's health, as well as exacerbating the social and psychological pressures they are under.
"Local authorities need to apply labour laws, monitor them, and set an appropriate minimum wage for female workers in light of the inflated cost of living and family expenses"
More support is needed for women workers
Hassoun added that female workers are one of the groups most in need of assistance from local councils and civil society organisations, who should make training programmes and financial support available, with a view to expanding the options women have by honing their skills, so they can improve their circumstances and exit the cycle of poverty.
She promotes the idea of loans for small business projects, self-development and skills training, and help with financial and family management to help female breadwinners to manage their incomes and develop creative ways to best utilise what resources they do have.
She stressed that local authorities need to apply labour laws, monitor them, and set an appropriate minimum wage for female workers in light of the inflated cost of living and family expenses, which will contribute to changing the current dynamics around supply and demand in the labour market, and force employers to give women workers their rights. Hassoun also called for economic monopolies to be banned.
"Economic empowerment strengthens women – psychologically, intellectually, socially. It's a weapon": Meet @galyarahal: The Idlib-based women's rights defender fighting for female empowerment https://t.co/L5WUY0Ndpw— Sheeffah Shiraz (@SheeWrites) June 17, 2022
In a statement published by the Syrian Response Coordinators team on 28 December 2022 about the demographic makeup in northwest Syria, they wrote that 46,892 widows who had lost their family breadwinner were living there, and approximately 328,673 displaced women were living in the region’s IDP camps, a number which included 10,809 widows.
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko