It had been about a year since Mohamed Arabiat had graduated, and despite applying for perhaps 50 odd positions in Jordan and abroad, he had had no luck securing a job. And so, he took the initiative, and launched his own car-washing project. Most Jordanians shy away from taking jobs in the car washing business, with workers in the sector predominantly made up of foreign laborers, due to the low income and lack of social protections. However, Arabiat paid no mind to these stereotypes, nor to the culture of shame that denigrates such work as being unworthy, or not requiring skills.
“A year after I graduated, my one preoccupation was to be capable of securing money for my own expenses, without having to ask my parents for cash,” he says. “I studied sociology at the University of Jordan, out of passion for the subject. I received my bachelor’s degree with merit, but after graduating, it became clear to me that my major was considered stagnant, and undesirable in the market.”
Regarding his project, he says: “During my years as a student, I had an evening shift at a supermarket, and I would watch the foreign workers wash the cars in the neighborhood. This is where the idea came from, so I launched my project and handed out ad flyers in Al-Salt, the city I live in. The news spread quickly in the neighborhood, and a lot of websites wrote about the project. It received a lot of support from the city residents, and a few hashtags appeared encouraging the initiative.”
Arabiat notes that people were surprised that a local was undertaking the business, when it is predominantly occupied by foreigners, particularly Egyptians. Of working with the foreign laborers, he says: “My experience was very positive. At the beginning, I had not yet excelled at the work or gained a high level of expertise. One of the young Egyptian workers taught me the skills of the trade, so I could become more proficient.”
Within a month and a half, the period he spent in the occupation, Arabiat had cleaned about 200 cars. However, he admits that the income from the job is meagre, in comparison with the effort put in. “My work hours start in the evening, as I work on cleaning cars in front of the homes of their owners, who are usually at work in the daytime,” he explains.
“Night work, particularly on the cold days, is tiring and at times painful. I usually use my father’s car to move from one area to another to wash cars, since I’m not restricted to a single area. Rather, I work all over the city, which contributes to raising costs,” he adds.
During his first month of work, he estimated that his net income totaled $100, which only covers his personal expenses. “It feel unjust, after having spent four years studying a specialization that is not demanded in the market. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to work in my specialization. I dream of having my own car wash; perhaps it will be a mobile car wash, who knows?"
Faced with skyrocketing rates of unemployment, Jordanian youth have come up with unconventional ways to fight back.
According to the latest survey on labor and unemployment, issued by the Jordanian Department of Statistics, the unemployment rate among young Jordanians aged between 19 and 24 years old is estimated at approximately 33%. This high rate has driven many young people into a sense of despair. The issue peaked after a group suicide attempt by five young men, who tried to jump off a high rise in the capital Amman, in protest of their living conditions and their struggle with unemployment.
In contrast with this overwhelming sense of despair, other young people have sought opportunities in the informal job sector, along the same lines as Arabiat’s project. These include car washing initiatives, street vendors, and others.
In this context, head of the Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies, Ahmed Awad, says: “Confronting the culture of shame and entering different professional sectors is a positive development for these youth, who refuse to be counted amid the unemployment statistics. However, this does not excuse the government of its responsibility, and does not exonerate it from its negligence in protecting the youth against poverty and unemployment.”
“This [informal] sector does not provide social protection to workers; they do not receive health insurance, or social security benefits. They bear the full burden of these securities themselves,” he adds.
Awad further explains that these job opportunities are temporary, and do not contribute to the overall GDP. As such, the state treats these young people as though they are outlaws, he says, as evidenced by the methods of dealing with street vendors and kiosk owners. The government seizes their wares, and at times even arrests them, neglecting that this is their only source of income.
Awad views the government’s economic policies over the past years as having contributed to debilitating the Jordanian economy, which has exacerbated the unemployment issue, with the total unemployment rate reaching 14.6%, while the youth unemployment rate stands at 33%.
“Over the past years, the government has entered free trade agreements with a number of states. These agreements have weakened local industries, in light of the inability of these industries to compete. As such, they have destroyed the clothing, shoes, and ceramic manufacturing sectors, as well as others,” he explains.
“The burden of high taxes on the industrial, agricultural, and touristic sectors has contributed to this stagnation, not to mention the obstacles against exporting products to neighboring countries, particularly Iraq and Syria, due to their political conditions,” he adds.
Awad affirms that the Jordanian economy today is weak and incapable of creating job opportunities, as only about 40,000 to 45,000 job opportunities are created today at most. Meanwhile, the shortage in job opportunities can be estimated by comparing the created job opportunities with the 100,000 to 120,000 new Jordanian graduates annually.
According to a study issued by the Phenix Center, the youth unemployment rate in Jordan is considered “among the highest” in the world. This is attributed to the weak economic and educational policies enforced in the kingdom, and their “lack of compliance” with the reality and priorities of the community, and the requirements to develop it.
The study called on the government to review its economic and social policies, particularly its labor, employment, and education policies. It further demanded that the government be attentive to the main causes that led to the diminishing opportunities for young people today, as well as developing effective and just employment policies, and focusing on projects and investments that create abundant job opportunities, with appropriate work conditions.