As Living Costs Surge, Syria’s Civil Servants Head for the Exits

Haid Haid

Image courtesy of Louai Beshara / AFP

Since the start of the year, hundreds of Syrian civil servants have reportedly resigned from their jobs, angered over meager pay that is barely enough to cover the cost of their commute.

Fearing that the trend could spread, the Syrian regime is using a carrot and stick approach to ensure that public institutions continue to function. In addition to promised salary increases and one-off bonuses, the government is enforcing multiple measures to make the resignation process difficult, and costly.

For now, these tactics appear to have staunched the flow of resignations. But until salaries are brought in line with Syria’s surging cost of living, the success is unlikely to last.

Government jobs in Syria were once highly sought after. They provided people with job security (being fired was almost unheard of), and promotions and salary increases were guaranteed. Most civil servants – such as teachers, doctors, and members of the armed forces – were rarely stressed, working only a few hours a day and having ample public holidays.

The main downside was the pay, equivalent to about $400 per month for most positions. Yet even this was enough to make ends meet.

None of these benefits exist now. The average monthly wage of a civil servant today is less than 100,000 Syrian pounds, or about $23. Put another way, civil servants’ salaries have lost nearly 80 percent of their value since the civil war began in 2011.

Economic and political forces are exacerbating these trends. The devaluation of the Syrian pound, unprecedented levels of inflation, lack of essential commodities, and the global implications of the war in Ukraine have significantly increased the cost of living in Syria and created an unprecedented gap between income and expenditure.

The average cost of living for a Syrian family of five exceeded 2.8 million Syrian pounds in March, more than 28-times the average government salary. Hence, it’s not surprising that many civil servants are trying to find something better, either at home or abroad.

The Syrian regime doesn’t release reliable figures, so it’s difficult to know how many of Syria’s roughly 700,000 public sector workers have left their jobs. But media reports suggest that hundreds, if not thousands, of government employees in various governorates, including Sweida and Latakia, have quit since the beginning of the year.

The number of workers whose resignation requests are still pending, or have already been rejected, is believed to be even higher.

Over the last decade, tens of thousands of Syrian civil servants have abandoned their posts. According to an April 2021 report by the Danish Immigration Service, an estimated 138,000 cases involving workers leaving a public position without notice were filed with courts between 2011 and 2017. Of the 50,000 verdicts, 38,000 cases were decided in favor of the state and 12,000 in favor of the employee.

Punishments ranged from fines to being charged with terrorism; the Syrian government considers defection from a public sector position to be a political action or an anti-government activity, the report said.

Punitive measures aren’t the regime’s only course of action. Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, who has conceded that salaries are significantly lower than living costsraised public sector pay by 30 percent in December 2021. Since then, government officials have promised an additional 25 percent increase, though that raise has yet to be delivered.

The regime has also been providing one-off bonuses. Government employees received an additional 75,000 pounds in April, and another 100,000 pounds in August. The government has even increased the tax-free allowance, to 92,000 pounds from 50,000 pounds, meaning that most civil servants pay little to no income tax.

But these measures were too little, too late for many, and the resignations continued. In response, the regime issued a directive last month that ministries must be stricter when reviewing resignation requests, and an application can only be approved if the employee is no longer needed by their department. Even then, decisions to grant separation must be approved by the national intelligence agency.

Given these added layers of bureaucracy, many employees’ resignation requests are being automatically rejected. Those that aren’t are subject to interrogation by security forces, a clear intimidation tactic designed to keep people in their jobs.

Only a handful of Syrians have successfully turned in their government-issued IDs in recent months. Many civil servants, especially those who have decided to remain in Syria, are likely hanging on out of fear.

But the deteriorating economic situation in Syria means that without stronger intervention, the gap between income and living expenses will continue to widen. The regime’s current policy of providing small salary increases and one-off bonuses is failing to improve morale, and public sector workers are unlikely to be satisfied until they are paid a livable wage.

Otherwise, there will come a time when civil servants have no choice but to pursue work that covers more than the commute to the office.

Dr. Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.