Damascus: Workers still go to factories despite risk

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrians shopping at a market in the central industrial city of Homs on May 18, 2011. (Photo: AFP /Ho/SANA)

By: Laith al-Khatib

Published Friday, March 28, 2014

Many workers in Damascus and its countryside continue to work in the industrial zones surrounding the capital even though the war has hit their workplaces and homes, and despite their daily exposure to death.

Damascus countryside: The working class in Damascus and its countryside is like an army, but unarmed. To protect their livelihood, workers are forced to confront the collapse of the Syrian economy by continuing to work amidst gunfire and intense battles.

It is no longer enough for the working class to labor all day to stay alive. Some of its own have to die so that others might live.

The industrial zones in the Damascus countryside hosts many of Syria's factories, such as the Group Five company and the spinning mills in Harasta, employing more than six thousand workers, and the plastics factories in the industrial zone near the garages in the al-Sayyida Zainab area south of the capital.

The largest industrial compound in the Damascus countryside lies on the southern road to Daraa, in the Hosh Plus industrial zone near the town of Sabina. The area contains the public and private cables factories and al-Dibs public spinning and weaving plants, in addition to food production, manufacturing, metals, and printing presses.

The workers' districts extend to the region of al-Bareda, between the entrances of Sahnaya and al-Kiswa near the Daraa international highway. The factories employ tens of thousands of workers who continue to run a large section of the huge industrial city.

Many confrontations took place in the large workers' districts (Harasta and Hosh Plus, for example), but the work did not stop. "Work only stopped sporadically for a few days in the past three years. We have no choice but to keep working," Abu Fahd, who works in the Consera factory on the Daraa road, tells Al-Akhbar.

Workers in the region speak of the many incidents they faced during the war. Clashes would be occurring all around, but they continued to work uninterrupted inside the factories. "Sometimes, the loud noise of the machines would drown out the sound of gunfire and shelling around us. Many workers were killed because they were in the middle of the battleground," a worker explains.

A woman worker in al-Samah socks factory in al-Sabboura, north west of the capital tells Al-Akhbar the "story of her factory" during one of the confrontations, "when army soldiers raided the factory and were surprised to find 40 workers although the battle was raging outside."

"One of the soldiers told us that the army communications scanners discovered the signals of the workers' cellular phones," she continues. "The army thought that the factory was an insurgents base and decided to bomb the place. However, one of the officers decided to wait until it is confirmed. Then came the surprise." Despite everything, "work continued, but mobile phones were shut off before entering the area."

Although they face grave threats, the workers receive low wages. The average monthly salary of workers in the private sector is around 15, thousand Syrian Pounds ($100). In the public sector, it is SP20 thousand.

Ali, a young worker in Hosh Plus, is a father of two children and lives close to his factory. "The amount barely covers a quarter of monthly needs for a small family," he says. "But we don't have any other alternatives. Most of the male workers work overtime to improve their salaries a little. Some have a second job, with the same pay or even less."

Ali describes the changes in workers' lives in the past three years. "New kinds of labor entered the job market, such as children, women, and some of the disabled. The reason is that many male workers completely disappeared from the job market, because they were killed, kidnapped, arrested, or left the country."

The employers prefer the "new types" of workers since "they are cheaper, first and foremost, and they do not bring trouble, like male adult workers, whose political views might affect their work or could be up for military service," explains a factory owner.

In tense areas, such as Eastern Ghouta and Daraya, many workers who lost their jobs due to their factories closing down are moving between different jobs.

"I lost my original career, in carpentry, and tried working in several professions," says Abu Salim, a vegetable salesman in Sahnaya, south west of Damascus. "I worked as a mechanic, construction worker, and in a metal shop, but I was not good at any of them. I ended up selling vegetables."

He believes the reason for this loss is that his original profession and those he tried "are not working. No one is building or buying furniture in these hard times. Professions that provide consumer services, like selling vegetables, do not stop even in the worst circumstances."

Many workers who lost their jobs, however, could not find a new job, so they set up a simple stall with modest capital. Today, dozens of stalls selling cigarettes, bread, or mobile phone credit have spread throughout the capital.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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