Day of the Wretched in Damascus

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Syrians work at a bakery in Damascus. (Photo: AFP - Louai Beshara)

By: Anas Zarzar

Published Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Al-Akhbar spoke to some Syrian day laborers on International Workers Day to find out how they have been coping with trying to earn a living amidst the ongoing turmoil in their country.

Damascus – The men gather in the main squares, close to the major areas in the center of the Syrian capital. They wait long hours in the freezing winter and the blazing summer, in the hope that a passerby might need a casual laborer, or what is known in Syria as “those who do,” the colloquial way of referring to workers.

The work available tends to be heavily physical, such as carrying building materials to higher floors, moving furniture, demolishing walls, removing the debris of construction, and even unblocking sewers.

In the garden square opposite the Al-Muwasa Hospital in the center of Damascus, Ahmad, Nasser, Abdul Majid, Abdul Salam, Abu Ahmad, and dozens of their friends sit on the ground. They watch the traffic and wait for a car to stop, ready for the chaotic scene likely to ensue.

They all storm the car, hoping to get work for the day. Their temporary boss will give them orders and they will obey. They will do what he asks in silence, so as to receive the pre-agreed wage. If you park your car nearby, they rush to you, thinking you might be an employer.

You tell them that you are a journalist who has come to see them because it is their day, International Workers Day. Some mock you and call to their friends saying, “Come and listen to this, apparently the wretched have their own holiday, too.”

Some of them walk away, frustrated and grumbling at the idea of a “Day of the Wretched,” as they have named it. Some grudgingly agree to speak, saying: “It will only be a way of getting things off our chests, it will not make the slightest bit of difference.”

“Most of us come from the countryside outside Aleppo and Idlib to work in the capital. Anyone who does not own land cannot live in the rural areas of the north,” one of them says, speaking with an endearing Aleppan accent.

His friend is eager to speak, so interrupts: “I have a secondary school certificate. Some of us have middle school certificates, or have been through higher education and intermediate colleges. We registered at the job centers operated by the ministry for social affairs and labor about 10 years ago, but we have not had a response yet.”

So they decided not to sit around waiting for their dream of getting a government job to come true, which would secure a regular wage and rights which would help them through life’s difficult circumstances. Their work involves no laws or regulations, it is purely a matter of supply, demand, and daily agreements.

The temporary boss asks for the number of men he needs for the work he has and he negotiates a wage with them: “When we finish the work in record time, the boss tries to renegotiate our wages, as if it is a matter of time, not the effort we have put in.”

Some of them deal with construction materials companies and various home improvement firms, which play the role of middlemen between the workers and the people requiring the labor. Recently, however, they discovered that they were being shamefully exploited.

They realized that in most cases, the bosses of these companies demand a commission which can be as much as half of the wage workers demand from the client.

“Most of the people who deal with these companies do not know the truth behind the wages we receive for the work we do,” one of them said. “This has exposed us to inhumane exploitation by the owners of these companies. We decided to boycott them and find work without them, and God will provide.”

Before the protest movement in Syria began, casual laborers in Damascus were contracted by engineers supervising housing projects in the suburbs, in return for a fixed wage of “Syrian lira (SL) 800 (US$11) a day,” according to the day laborers.

But the crisis in Syria, which has gone on for more than one year now, put a stop to all these construction projects and the majority of them are now without work.

“We used to work more than 12 hours a day, doing whatever the supervising engineer asked us to do: Digging, demolishing, and carrying materials to the upper floors,” another one explains. “There was no difference between winter and summer for us – cold or hot – it was just the amount of work we did every day.”

Because their contracts ended, the vast majority of these men are now looking for any work to make as much money as possible, now usually only “SL500 (US$7) a week.”

One of the most original jobs has been discovered by Ahmad, 27. He has taken advantage of the electricity shortages in the exclusive areas of the city, with their high-rise buildings.

“There are old men and women who cannot get up to their apartments on the higher floors, because with no electricity, the lifts have stopped working,” Ahmad explains. “I carry them up on a chair I fix tightly to my back. There are some who I just help to take up their luggage and shopping for a reasonable payment. Some of my customers have offered me food and second hand clothes in addition to the agreed wage.”

Last year, Abdul Majid, 23, lost his left eye when a piece of rock cut through it while he was working on a house. “The owner of the house did not even bother to call an ambulance, or even to give me the wage that we had agreed on for the work I could not finish. The state hospital would not let me in for treatment because I do not have identity papers. So I simply lost my eye!”

Everyone considers Abu Ahmad, in his 50s, to be the leader of the group. He has spent more than 24 years doing this work: “Do you know how many parliamentary election campaigns I have watched sitting in this same spot?”

He laughs bitterly pointing to the posters and pictures of the Syrian parliamentary candidates around him. “Look at them, all speaking in our name, making resounding promises to improve our living conditions, but they have one thing in common: they lie and traffic in our misery, work, and sweat. If they were truly honest, let them come and sit with us here, so that one of these successive governments can find a solution to our suffering.”

Damascus’ casual workers have invented various mechanisms in order to cope with their difficult circumstances. For example, 10 of them will rent a room in the Muhajiroun area. They sleep on the floor and share a loaf of bread, sometimes they even share their daily wages.

“We miss our families, wives, and children in our distant villages and towns,” one of the workers explains. “But we prefer to stay here, so we do not have to live through the heartache of going back to our families utterly poor, just like we left them.”

Many married Syrian workers are registered with the Social Aid Initiative, which provides destitute Syrian families with financial support. “But this does not apply to us because we live away from our families. You also need connections to get access, not to mention the nepotism that continues to plague the issue of unemployment and poverty,” another complains.

The most they can dream of achieving on Workers Day is “not to go to sleep hungry and to go to see our families laden with all that they desire and that we dream of providing for them,” Abu Ahmad adds.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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