MAFRAQ — Cleaners working at the Zaatari Refugee Camp near Mafraq, 80 kilometres northeast of Amman, went on strike and held a sit-in on Thursday in protest against their employer’s plans to replace them with Syrian workers.

“We are not working today. They want to replace us with Syrians, because it is cheaper for them,” said a 22-year-old protester, who refused to give his name.

The workers said they were surprised to see that their employer, the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), had put up signs around the camp announcing cleaning jobs “for Syrians”.

“We saw their ads today. They want Syrians only. We cleaned this place on Fridays and on Eid and now they only want Syrians. This is not fair,” said another protester.

Cyril Dupree, country director of ACTED, a French NGO responsible for waste management in the camp, said the decision to replace the workers was based on instructions from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which operates the camp along with the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation (JHCO).

“Last week, we received a letter from UNHCR… requesting that the cleaning be done through a community-based approach, meaning that some refugees in the camp do the cleaning,” he said.

“It is normal. Everywhere in the world, in camp settings, cleaners are hired from inside the camp. Recruiting workers from outside the camp was transitional. They are all day workers and not on permanent contracts,” he added.

According to Dupree, there are 60 cleaners working in the Zaatari camp, recruited through a private contractor, the Specialised Company for Trade Services, which pays their salary.

“I do not know how much they are paid, and I cannot say how much Syrians will be paid. We pay the contractor, who pays them,” he said.

The workers said they made around JD6.80 per day.

“We get paid around JD6.80 for an eight-hour shift. I would not come all the way from Irbid every day to work in the dust if I was not in need myself,” said one of the protesters.

“We need to make a transition quickly but smoothly, but it needs to be as soon as possible,” Dupree said when asked how soon ACTED would replace the current workers with Syrians.

But protesters, who see the move as “inhumane”, say they are left with no explanation.

“They did not speak with us. We just read the ads. This is inhumane. We are human beings too,” said one.

The UNHCR denied instructing its local partners to replace Jordanian workers with Syrians.

“UNHCR has always believed in supporting local communities and will provide the opportunity for members of the local communities to be part of UNHCR activities,” said UNHCR Representative in Jordan Andrew Harper.

“We have not instructed local entities to replace Jordanians with Syrians. It is their decision to find the appropriate operation methods for the best interest of Jordan and Syrian refugees,” he added, “though we believe Syrian refugees should take responsibility in taking care of the surrounding environment they are living in.”

Camp Manager Mahmoud Omoush said the protests had nothing to do with the termination of the cleaners’ contracts and were quickly resolved.

"We have not been informed by ACTED yet if they are terminating their contracts,” Omoush said. “Their contracts are only until September 15. The cleaners were protesting about a shortage of workers. They demanded that we hire workers. We met with them this afternoon and they resumed work."