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‘A government job is a burden’: Syrian regime institutions bleed staff

Increasing numbers of Syrian public sector employees left their jobs due to low pay and high living costs over the past three years, despite the fact that quitting without permission is a criminal offense.

21 May 2024

PARIS — At the start of 2021, Abu Muhammad (a pseudonym) put his 16 years of teaching at a public school in the Daraa city of Inkhil behind him. His salary of 130,000 Syrian pounds (SYP)—worth $35 at the time—was not even enough to buy cigarettes, he said. The potential for trouble if “I didn’t participate in Baath Party meetings and activities” also played into his decision to resign before reaching the age of retirement.

While at his job, Abu Muhammad relied on “giving private lessons to students at their homes” to earn enough money to get through the month. Now that he is free to teach privately full time, he makes “the equivalent of a full month’s salary at a public school in two days,” he told Syria Direct

While Abu Muhammad was able to formally resign when he left his job, that was not an option for Sami, who taught at a public school in Jassim, a city in northern Daraa. At the start of the current school year, the 28-year-old quit by sending a short letter to the principal telling him he would not be coming to work. He knew that an official resignation request being granted was “impossible, due to the severe shortage of educational staff” and new directives from Syria’s Ministry of Education to not accept resignations in an effort to limit employee losses.

“I know that quitting this way is illegal and opens me up to legal accountability, so I don’t leave my city,” Sami said. Before leaving his job, Sami taught for five years: two years under short-term contracts with the Ministry of Education and three as a long-term employee. 

In the wake of the March 2011 revolution and ensuing war, many of Syria’s public sector employees left their jobs for safety reasons or to leave the country. Some left because the areas where they lived fell out of regime control. But while Damascus has since regained control of vast areas of central and southern Syria, the public sector there is still hemorrhaging staff. Over the past three years in particular, informal resignations have been on the rise, mainly for economic reasons: low wages and the high cost of living. 

A study Syria’s National Institute of Public Administration (INA) published in April revealed that six ministries lost more than 50 percent of their staff from 2010 to 2022. 

The study found the largest loss rate among men, as the number of male public sector employees fell by 32.7 percent during that period. At the same time, the number of female employees rose by 9.7 percent, indicating a move towards what the authors called the “feminization” of the public workforce. 

To combat employee losses, Damascus has adopted several measures to tighten procedures for accepting resignation requests and even ban resignations altogether. In September 2023, the Ministry of Education suspended provincial education directors’ powers that allowed them to grant resignation requests. 

The ministry ordered its directorates not to accept requests for resignation, unpaid leave or transfers regardless of the circumstances or reasons behind them, such as health concerns, pursuing education or moving to reunite with family.

Months earlier, the ministry had issued a similar decision but carved out some exceptions. At that time, resignation requests could be accepted if the applicants had completed at least 30 years of service, had been granted unpaid leave for two consecutive years, suffered from a health condition preventing them from performing their duties, or were resigning to reunite with a spouse. 

These moves could not stem the bleeding of human resources from state institutions and departments, however. The Secretary of Labor Affairs at the General Federation of Trade Unions, Jamal al-Hajli, attributed increased resignations to “the poor living situation” which “forced many to tender their resignations to find additional work” because “the salary is not enough to cover transportation costs,” as he told Syria’s state-owned Tishreen newspaper in August 2023. 

Syrian law considers leaving work at state institutions without a formal resignation to be a criminal offense punishable by law. Article 364 of the Syrian Penal Code punishes unauthorized resignation with three-to-five years’ imprisonment and a fine of one month’s salary and any bonuses received for the last year. 

Under Article 135 of Law No. 50 of 2004, Syria’s Public Employment Law, workers are considered to have resigned after leaving a job without proper leave and not resuming work within 15 days. 

Those in violation also do not receive retirement benefits under the country’s Social Insurance Law, under which a pension is paid to all those who are at least 60 years old with 15 years of service or retire early after serving for at least 25 years.  

No formal resignation

Given the Ministry of Education’s decisions to refuse to accept resignations, Sami, the teacher from Jassim, committed a crime by quitting his job without officially resigning, exposing himself to legal repercussions. 

However, Sami benefited from the state of chaos in Daraa since the summer 2018 settlement agreement that returned opposition-controlled parts of southern Syria to state control. Damascus has no real executive and judicial authority in these areas, and Sami has avoided legal trouble by keeping out of sight and not leaving the city where he lives. 

One lawyer living in Daraa city, who asked to remain anonymous, said Sami could face legal consequences “if a case is initiated against him” under Article 364 of the penal code, noting that his case is “a misdemeanor, not a felony.” 

Before quitting, Sami made SYP 130,000 a month, like Abu Muhammad who resigned in 2021. But while the two teachers were paid the same amount in pounds, the salary’s value in dollars has gone down by more than 70 percent. 

Sami’s last paycheck was worth $9.30, according to the exchange rate at the time. He also received a sum of SYP 300,000 ($21.50) a month from a humanitarian organization in the education sector, in exchange for working additional hours teaching remedial courses at his school.

Months after leaving his job, Sami opened up a store selling and repairing mobile phones. He also teaches private lessons for students in Jassim. Together, the jobs provide “enough to get by,” as he put it. 

Sami’s story encapsulates that of many Syrians who have chosen to leave their public sector jobs because of the gap between their salary and monthly living expenses without officially resigning or obtaining approval. 

Ahmad al-Ibrahim (a pseudonym) left his job at Aleppo University in 2021, despite his manager refusing his request to resign. When he quit, al-Ibrahim was making SYP 60,000 ($25 at the time). If he were making the same salary today, it would be worth just $4. With the “low value of the salary, my manager’s mistreatment, and discrimination on the grounds of sectarianism or [insufficient] loyalty to the manager,” he chose to quit anyway, despite the risks he could face as a result, he told Syria Direct

After al-Ibrahim left his job, Aleppo University opened a case against him due to his absence. However, he benefited from a presidential amnesty that year, Legislative Decree No. 13 of 2021 issued by President Bashar al-Assad. Under the amnesty, “I became considered someone who resigned” legitimately, al-Ibrahim said.

Abu Muhammad was relatively fortunate to have his resignation accepted, unlike those after him who tried to formally resign from their jobs at institutions affiliated with the Ministry of Education. Still, “it was no easy thing,” he said. He had to go to Daraa city, the provincial capital, 10 times to complete the resignation process. 

A formal resignation requires applicants to submit a written application explaining the reason for resigning, a certified copy of an employment status record, approval from the education directorate, a letter from a supervisor, financial clearance and a copy of an ID card.

Salary is not enough

Before the Syrian revolution, working for the government was seen as a good way to achieve job security. Today, the plummeting exchange rate of the pound and low standard of living for public sector workers has made a long-term government job more of a trap, with short-term yearly contracts viewed as less harmful to employees.

In 2020, Zainab al-Abdullah completed her university studies in Latakia city, where she lives today. The following year, the Ministry of Education appointed her as a teacher at a public school in the capital, Damascus, with an annual contract. 

Al-Abdullah renewed her contract once, but when it came time to renew a second time, she refused to do so because of the low salary. She was making SYP 80,000 a month ($40 at the time), while the cost of living in Damascus was more than SYP 350,000 ($175) a month, she told Syria Direct.

Since then, al-Abdullah has made her living homeschooling children. “From my work, I earn three times the government salary, with fewer working hours,” she said. 

Abu Hussam, 47, formally resigned from his government job at a state institution in Damascus in 2020, after 18 years of service. That was “before the government clamped down on resignation requests,” he told Syria Direct from Inkhil, where he lives today. 

When the war broke out, Abu Hussam moved with his family from Daraa to a city outside Damascus so he would be able to go to work in the capital. Staying in Inkhil meant “traveling 70 kilometers a day, passing through military checkpoints and searches that stopped me from arriving on time,” he told Syria Direct

Abu Hussam went to this trouble for SYP 60,000 a month ($30 at the time), which was the last salary Abu Hussam received before he resigned. When he started the resignation process, he paid a full month’s salary “as a bribe” for it to be accepted and to obtain a security clearance, one of the documents needed to complete the process.

Abu Hussam does not appear to have any regrets about resigning, even though it meant losing his pension. “The salary was enough for 10 days, at best,” he said. His new job, driving a taxi he bought after selling a plot of land in Inkhil, provides for his family throughout the month. 

No replacement

At the Daraa Agricultural Directorate, more than 50 percent of employees have resigned or quit their jobs over the last two years, one official source there told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “Attrition continues at the directorate, despite strictness in accepting resignations, limiting it to health cases.”

“As soon as an employee finds a better job opportunity, they quit immediately, regardless of whether or not it is in accordance with the systems and laws,” he said. 

With depleted human resources, “the remaining staff can no longer complete the directorate’s work,” he added. “Many works and projects have been paralyzed, and we did not complete them on time or in the required way.” 

The Daraa Water Establishment faces a similar crisis. There, more than 35 percent of employees left their jobs in the last two years, according to a source within the body who manages a water main unit in the western Daraa countryside.

The water official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said seven out of 22 employees in the unit he manages resigned or quit since the start of 2023. The staff shortage has impacted “our work, especially the work of the technical team, and delayed water maintenance.”

In the Hama Grain Establishment, the number of employees has fallen to 7,540 from 14,250 in 2011. In other words, “half the staff has been vacant without replacement throughout the war years, and the depletion continues,” one official there told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity.

The solution, according to the Daraa Water Establishment official, lies with “doubling employees’ salaries and increasing the money allocated for medical treatment, in line with the huge rise in the price of medicine and exams, and disbursing compensation for transportation, or providing means of transportation for public state workers.” 

But even these measures may not work, especially since salary and wage increases—most recently hiked by 50 percent in February—come alongside increases in the price of fuel, food and consumer goods. 

Employees who leave their jobs at state institutions head to the private sector for higher wages, the mayor of one city in northern Daraa told Syria Direct. He cited four employees in his municipality leaving their jobs since the start of 2023 to work in the private sector “in the hope that their salaries in the private sector will cover their monthly expenses.”

The mayor’s municipality has trouble finding people to work as garbage collectors, due to “the low pay of this profession, and the negative image of those working in it.” He also noted “many employees who carry commercial driver’s licenses are reluctant to work in state institutions.” 

In one municipality in eastern Daraa, five employees submitted resignation requests since the start of 2023, but “they were rejected because there was no replacement, which drove them to quit the job on their own,” a member of the municipality told Syria Direct. The number of municipal employees fell from 11 to six, while it also has only seven sanitation workers rather than the 11 required. 

Employees who remain are forced to “do work that is outside their specialization to cover the personnel shortage,” he added.

Constitutional violation

Adnan al-Masalma, a lawyer in Daraa city, said many administrative measures aimed at curbing attrition from public institutions “are in conflict with the law,” but “there is nobody to demand the constitutionality of the laws, since the trade union and administrative bodies obey the orders of the party and executive authorities.” 

Accordingly, the authority of administrative decisions and orders “outweighs their legality, and limits the judiciary’s access to those decisions,” al-Masalma explained. 

He noted that the requirement to obtain security clearance for resignation requests is a “constitutional violation” in itself, as it restricts the freedom of employees and citizens. 

“Resigning is a constitutional right,” al-Masalma stressed. “No party has any right to violate the law. This limits the freedom of the individual and the human right for workers to choose the work that suits them to earn a living for themselves and their families—especially in light of the difficult economic conditions and low value of salaries and wages.” 

Despite the legal risks, Sami does not regret leaving his job without resigning. “A government job is a burden for every employee,” he said. “I wouldn’t advise anybody to work as a government employee these days.” 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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