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Exploited + Employed:
As Displaced Iraqis Leave, Gap In Kurdistan's Labour Market Grows

Sarchin Salih
Displaced Arabs who fled to Iraqi Kurdistan were a boon for village-dwelling farmers. The farmers, who paid low wages to desperate displaced for three years, are now at a loss.
10.08.2017  |  Sulaymaniyah
Hard work: Sheep farming in Iraqi Kurdistan. (photo: Sarchin Salih)
Hard work: Sheep farming in Iraqi Kurdistan. (photo: Sarchin Salih)

Over the past three years, Kurdish local Ali Rahim’s business has been flourishing. Although the 55-year-old left his village, Diwanah, in the Darbandikhan district in Sulaymaniyah province, in 2003, he continued to keep sheep back home. It was always difficult to make ends meet with the livestock – up until recently. Over the past three years Rahim has been able to hire Arab families, displaced by the security crisis caused by the extremist Islamic State group, to help him farm.

Both parties benefitted, he says. Rahim did not have to pay very high wages – around IQD300 (US$ 0.25) - because the families were happy to do the job in exchange for lower pay and accommodation. Five different families have looked after Rahim’s sheep since the security crisis began in 2014 and Rahim made good money in part because the wages were so low.

However now that the Islamic State, or IS, group has been driven out of many parts of Iraq, those Arab families have started to return home – leaving Rahim with a lack of labour willing to work for so little.

Often locals want more money or a share of the business, as well as accommodation and a daily allowance.

Ever since Arab families started to arrive in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, seeking the comparative safety the region could offer, their presence has been controversial. Locals have complained that the influx of displaced Iraqis was a burden on the regional infrastructure, that they were consuming water, power and health supplies.

The Iraqi Kurdish government has often joined in the chorus of complaints. However more than one government official has also admitted that the region benefitted from the displaced people working in various businesses.

But there is also no doubt that the newcomers became an important part of the economy over the past three years. Some Arabs started their own businesses in Iraqi Kurdistan, others simply spent the money they had on local goods and services.

Many, like the families Rahim was employing, were desperate and willing to work for far lower wages than locals. In fact, this became another problem as locals said that Arabs were taking their jobs away.

One of the sectors that really benefitted from this was the agricultural one. In Iraqi Kurdistan sheep farming involves taking the sheep out to pasture in the summer or feeding them in the winter and cleaning their stalls daily until they are sold. And the displaced Arabs willing to do this work brought life back to some villages.  

“When the displaced people came, I moved back to my village,” explains another local, Hassan Karaman; the farmer is 70 and he had been forced to move from his village in the Bawa Nour district to the city with his children because he was too old to look after his sheep. “But I don’t like to live in the city. I prefer to live on my land.”

The displaced Arab families that came to work for him and tend his flocks made this possible, he says. However now that the displaced people are returning to their own homes elsewhere in Iraq, Karaman has had to hire a Kurdish family to do the same job – and they won’t work for as low a wage.

Often locals want more money or a share of the business, as well as accommodation and a daily allowance. “If I accept those conditions, I won’t make any profits at the end of the year,” Karaman admits.

And it is not just the Kurdish locals demanding more. Of the formerly displaced Arabs who remain, some are also now asking for more money as they have experience and skills and there is no longer such a surplus of job seekers. Often they are also supplementing their income with government aid and they no longer need to accept such low wages.

“The displaced people played an important role in Kurdish villages,” Shaker Yassin, head of the Office of Migration and Displacement in the Iraqi Kurdish Ministry of Interior, told NIQASH. “Many of them had experience and they were aged between 18 and 35 and willing to work for little. That’s why they had a positive impact on the local agricultural sector. Their departure is going to have a big impact on villagers because they really filled a hole in the labour market.”  

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