What is the position of the working class in contemporary Syrian society? I posed this question ten years ago and concluded at the time that one could only speak of a “class in formation.” [1] I was criticized then for having even raised such a question. After all, pre-capitalist relations of production in Syria have disintegrated, the artisan class has declined, there are increasing numbers of large capitalist enterprises employing an ever larger number of workers, and a class-based trade union movement emerged a half century ago. So it is tempting to conclude that the working class has in fact established itself as an actor on the Syrian social scene. But its obvious weakness in contemporary politics and society continues to raise a number of questions. Just as ten years ago, an analysis of the working class today must confront its segmentation, isolation and rootedness in other social strata. The continuing social and geographic mobility of Syrian workers has resulted in such fragmentation that the class actually seems to disappear the closer we examine it.

We should begin by reviewing the basic data. In 1963, the year of the Baathist seizure of state power, industrial production represented only 15 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). It grew to almost 20 percent in 1970, but began to drop off after that and is now around 17 percent. The number of people employed in the industrial sector, broadly defined, increased from 121,000 in 1960 to 190,000 in 1970, but only 70 percent were wage earners. As a percentage of the economically active population, this group has stagnated at 12.5 percent. To this group we should add the workers in the extraction industries, whose number has grown rapidly from 5.5 percent in 1960 to 7.3 percent in 1970. Transportation workers have also increased, from 3.9 percent in 1960 to 4.2 percent in 1970. Since the results of the 1980 census have not yet been published, we have no more recent figures on the active population. Partial figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics and the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) provide some information on the more recent situation. The number of persons employed in public sector industry increased from 56,600 to 92,600 between 1970 and 1977, and to nearly 120,000 in 1982 — more than doubling in 12 years. For public and private sector industry taken together, union statistics show 136,000 employed in 1972 (almost 55 percent in the public sector) and 207,000 in 1980.

The number of unionized workers rose from 191,000 to 365,000 between 1972 and 1982, of whom 60,000 and 107,000, respectively, were in manufacturing. If we consider the entire productive sector plus transportation, but excluding services, there were 137,000 union members in 1972 and 273,000 in 1982.

Counting the Workers

These statistics suggest that approximately two thirds of the labor force engaged in industry in the early 1970s were in the private sector. This is clearly higher than union estimates. The discrepancy lies in the fact that of the 33,000 “industrial enterprises” counted in the 1975 Statistical Abstract, nearly 16,000 had no employees or only one, and only 772 employed more than ten. Furthermore, of the 31,000 establishments counted in the 1970 census, 13,000 were in the textile sector. Half of the so-called “industrial” labor force was in fact still part of the artisanry. The GFTU statistics should therefore be taken as the maximum number of workers in the modern industrial sector — that is, in the working class.

Nearly 40 percent of workers in industry and transportation are engaged in manufacturing. The three dominant branches are textiles (obviously in decline over the past decade), food processing, and metallurgical and electrical industries. The public sector is predominant in textiles, [2] and is rapidly becoming so in food processing. It is still insignificant in the third branch, largely made up of small workshops, while heavy metallurgical industry exists only in the public sector. The number of construction workers is almost equal to the number of workers in these three main industrial branches taken together; while the number of transportation workers is almost half the number of those in manufacturing, despite a relative decline between 1972 and 1980. The private sector predominates in both construction and transportation.

Regional distribution is still characterized by the predominance of Damascus and Aleppo, despite the policy of industrial decentralization, particularly in the food processing and cement industries. These two main cities together encompass half the workers counted by the unions, whereas their respective populations in 1982 (1,037,000 and 906,000) amounted to 18 percent of the total Syrian population (10,800,000).

Certain industries are concentrated in particular urban centers, but all are found in Damascus and Aleppo. These two cities have traditionally been the centers of the textile industry since the establishment of the first large enterprises in the 1930s, the plants which produced the most militant trade union activists in the 1950s. One principal activity usually predominates in each of the provincial capitals. Petroleum engages one third of the labor force in and around al-Hasaka. In Tartous and Latakia, 16 and 22 percent of the labor force work in port-related activities. Thirty percent of the workers outside the services sector in Latakia in 1980 were employed in construction, and many of them were working on the enlargement of the port. In Raqqa, 40 percent of the labor force is employed by the Tabqa Dam Authority. The petroleum industry employs 14.5 percent of the labor force in Tartus and 5 percent in Horns, where another 13 percent work in the refinery. Hama is where the major public sector metallurgical enterprises were established in the 1970s (producing girders, rods, reinforcing bars), employing more than 8 percent of the wage labor in that city; the cement works, established in 1980, employs another 8 percent.

Industrial operations were set up throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Since 1980, several textile plants have started up in Dayr al-Zawr, Idlib, Latakia and al-Hasaka. [3] Canning factories were established in Idlib, Mayadin and al-Hasaka. Two fertilizer factories opened in Horns, a tire plant in Hamah, a paper plant in Dayr al-Zawr and, finally, a new cement plant in Tartous, which should employ 2,000 people by late 1984 and account for one third of Syria’s cement production.

Women workers are concentrated primarily in textiles and tobacco. In most manufacturing sectors, there are very few women workers, and practically none in the transportation sector (except as office workers). But they represent close to one fourth of the work force in the textile industry, and 22.3 percent of the union membership in the public sector. (In the private sector they usually do piecework at home, and are therefore not included in these figures.) Women represent 10 percent of the total labor force in the tobacco industry, but they constitute a greater proportion in the cities — almost one third (of 950) in Damascus, more than one third (of 3,400) in Latakia, and three fifths (of 370) in Hamah. In Damascus there are also many women working in small-scale metalwork shops and assembling electrical appliances (1,100 of 4,300 employees in the public sector in 1982).

Living Wages

Living and working conditions vary a great deal from one enterprise to another and between the private and public sectors. The minimum wage in 1984 was 600 Syrian pounds per month, but there are many ways to get around it, and such practices are not the sole prerogative of the private sector. Even when a worker does receive the minimum wage, it does not go very far: Rice costs 3 pounds per kilo, sugar 4, lentils 6, subsidized bread 3, and meat 40 (in August 1984 in Damascus).

The demand for higher wages has been and remains a constant theme in the union press, despite the fact that the president periodically allows adjustments. In 1979, when the minimum wage was 300 pounds, a series of decrees doubled salaries at the bottom of the wage scale and increased the others in inverse proportion to their existing level. But the cost of consumer goods has increased by 50 to 100 percent since then, according to one union study, [4] and workers’ purchasing power has fallen more or less sharply depending upon the employer, each enterprise having its own wage policy. For example, the ‘Ayn Fija Company (mineral water) pays 615 pounds a month for the same job for which the General Water Company pays 1,200. [5] In many plants, workers are demanding their wages be equalized with those in comparable enterprises in the public sector, or in the private sector, or in the public service companies. [6] Apparently more recently established state enterprises pay better than older ones, construction pays better than industry, the services sector pays better than the other sectors, and army enterprises pay better than all the rest.

While the private sector attracts skilled workers and technicians by offering higher wages, it often mistreats unskilled workers, according to periodic complaints made by the unions. In fact, inequalities vary greatly, depending on the type of company or the concern. For example, two studies done in Damascus in 1979-1980 on the hosiery industry (private-sector, semi-artisanal) and a large public-sector textile factory (the Dibs Company) revealed wages ranging between 160 and 1,000 pounds in the first case and between 139 and 1,700 pounds in the second at a time when the minimum wage was supposed to be 300 pounds. [7] Workers could earn overtime in both cases, but more often in the first. In the second case they might be eligible for productivity bonuses. In the public-sector operation, administrative personnel and management were paid the highest salaries, which was not the case in the private-sector operation. This is a permanent thorn in the side of public sector workers. Factory conditions are infinitely better, but offices are overstaffed and office workers are clearly better paid than factory workers. Office workers receive much higher “productivity bonuses,” too. Since their production cannot be measured, their bonus is based on a formula that allocates to them an amount equal to that distributed among the productive workers, with special weight being given to more “important” jobs. Because there are fewer office workers, the average bonus is higher than that of the productive worker. [8]

The union press and analyses generally look to low wages and poor working conditions to explain the two major problems in Syrian public-sector industry: the labor shortage, especially skilled labor, and the extremely high rate of turnover. The textile union congress held in Damascus in February 1984 cited some shocking examples: one of the oldest textile operations in the Damascus area, the Khumasiyya Company (founded around 1935), was able to fill only 2,244 out of 3,133 positions in 1983. In other words, 889 jobs went unfilled, of which 823 were in production. The company experienced chronic absenteeism, particularly during the harvest season. It operated at 30 percent below full capacity. Furthermore, 796 workers quit and were only partially replaced by 694 new ones. Total turnover was 35 percent, and probably 40 percent in production. It is not surprising that the company failed to meet its production quota and could not make its payments to the state. Figures like these (one third of the jobs unfilled plus a one-third turnover rate, leaving a stable work force of one third, these being the oldest workers) are apparently typical of the textile industry in the Damascus area. The State Carpet Company holds the record: of 381 positions at its two factories in Damascus and al-Suwayda, only 171 were filled (45 percent), and for 131 quits there were only 120 new hires in 1983. The employees are mostly women, hence even more underpaid. Maybe this is why the company considers itself to be in good financial shape.

In addition to these factors, public-sector industry has seen significant layoffs recently due to a freeze on credit. [9] A decrease in aid from the Gulf states reportedly caused the shortage of foreign currency. [10] This has delayed the supply of raw materials, which rules out production bonuses and cuts into workers’ supplementary income.


Low wages also may explain the frequency of moonlighting. On leaving the factory, a worker may go off to a second job as an itinerant salesman, a farmer, an artisan, or transporting people and goods in a Suzuki minivan. Although it is difficult to obtain information on this point, the study quoted earlier estimated that of 86 employees interviewed at Dibs Company in early 1980, nearly half held a second job (20 in agriculture, five as drivers and 16 as workers or artisans). The second job generally doubled the worker’s income. In the printing industry, where the unions are demanding a six-hour day, the great majority of workers spend the other half of the day working in private-sector printing shops. Such long hours and the fatigue they engender can only have a negative effect on productivity. Some officials in the public sector complain that the factory is only a “resting place,” or at best a temporary placement until a better-paid job turns up. [11]

Is the situation any better in the private sector? Workers often complain about the differential between the public and private sectors; the workers in one sector hold up the example of better pay and conditions in the other. Conditions do vary between the two sectors. Workers in the private sector are rarely provided with the services guaranteed in the public sector, such as transportation, company cafeterias, medical care, social insurance (retirement and accident benefits) and cooperative stores. They are better paid only if they are highly skilled, and they work very long hours. Only the smallest establishments allow some flexibility in the work schedule and more humane working conditions, on the basis of paternalistic relationships with the owners. The rate of turnover is at least as high as in the public sector and often higher, according to several small owners. They are forced to pay their best workers well in order to keep them. The best workers are hoping to set up in business for themselves or to find a job in the service industry.

The core of stable workers in both the public and private sectors is all the more fragile because industry has seen such rapid development in the last two decades. Plant startups and regional industrialization have proceeded at an unrelenting pace. Hafiz al-Asad’s November 1970 “corrective movement” was a tremendous stimulus to the private sector. Business permits have been issued by the thousands every year.

Given the fact that the labor force has doubled twice since 1965, that one third of the labor force in the public sector is replaced every year (with perhaps a higher proportion in the private sector), that a significant proportion hold a second job (often in small workshops), and that young workers aspire only to escape their situation as quickly as possible, what then remains of this working class?

The rationalization of labor in the capitalist system has historically been synonymous with increased exploitation, as the pressure of capital has forced the integration of the work force. Workers have, to some extent, succeeded in turning this pressure back against capital by developing labor solidarity and class consciousness. But in cases like Syria, where capitalism is weak and poorly integrated, and industrial development is a relatively recent phenomenon, worker resistance takes the form of flight from the difficult working conditions and a search for individual solutions by personal advancement in rapidly shifting social circumstances. The result is that it is impossible to rationalize the organization of labor, or to establish a stable collective work force.

Where do Syrian workers go after they take an industrial job, work for a short period and then quit? If low wages are the reason they leave, where can they find a better wage? One solution since 1975 has been the attraction of the Gulf petroleum industry. Like all other states in the region, Syria has experienced a massive emigration of labor to the Gulf oil-producing states. The GFTU estimated in 1982 that 200,000 of its members had left the country to find work. The World Bank estimates the number of Syrian emigrant workers at a maximum of 100,000. [12] There were 27,217 Syrian workers in Kuwait in 1970, and 40,962 in 1975, while the number of Syrians in Saudi Arabia was estimated at about 4,000 in 1974 and 20,878 in 1978. [13]

Mobility and Dispersion

The fall in the price of oil over the past two years has slowed this trend, but there is still no sign of stabilization in the public sector. On the contrary. There are other possible solutions, however. Some of these may be found in the public sector itself, through wage competition, by which companies hope to attract workers. Another lies in the growing administrative job rolls, which raise the hope that with the right connection or a well-placed bribe one may be able to find a position. Then again, there are the military industries. Col. Bahloul’s famous “Milihouse” represents an extreme case in which there are no unions and no job security, but wages are twice as high as elsewhere and raises come much faster. The private sector offers the possibility of employment in commerce or the service industries, much more attractive than small-scale production, and — the preferred solution — self-employment.

Professional mobility seems to be a dominant characteristic of Syrian labor, particularly in industry. This can only be explained by the tremendous fluidity of the labor market, resulting from the very rapid structural transformations in the economy and society. The increasing integration of the country into the regional and international market, urbanization and the development of communications have been accelerated by the growth of oil revenues, through contributions from the Gulf states and through local oil production (which constitutes two thirds of Syria’s exports). All of these factors have encouraged the rapid growth of the modern sectors, particularly the service industries, as well as the development of the state apparatus. The latter is all the more cumbersome, in that the political system and the dominant forms of social relations combine to encourage this trend. At the same time, rapid population growth and the relative decline of the agricultural sector bring thousands of young people into the labor market each year. With the expansion of educational facilities, these people are increasingly qualified, although their qualifications do not always correspond to the real needs of the economy.

The dispersion of the working class into foreign job markets and other occupations is occurring at a time when the break with an essentially agricultural past has not yet been completed. This phenomenon is not unique to Syria. The acceleration of labor turnover during the 1970s caused by migration toward the Gulf is also a problem in other states of the region, particularly Jordan and Egypt.

This being the case, it would be useful to qualify our pessimism by taking into account the disparities in the process of development in various Syrian cities. The fourfold increase in the number of union members in Tartous and al-Hasaka and the threefold increase in Dayr al-Zawr in the decade between 1972 and 1982 give some idea of the radical changes that have taken place, and also suggest the fragility of working-class consciousness in these areas. In Damascus and Aleppo, where industrialization began earlier and union membership has increased at a much slower pace (and has actually shrunk as a percentage of the labor force), certain traditions have been allowed to continue. Here, and to a lesser degree in Horns, we find a trace of the militant trade union tradition established in the 1930s and 1950s. Recent trade union history has not been the same.

Political Unionism

Damascus attracts a large rural immigration from all over the country, and has seen a much stronger growth than Aleppo since independence. Union membership has also increased at a faster rate in Damascus. Between 1972 and 1982, membership grew by 66 percent, from 58,000 to 96,000, while in the same period membership in Aleppo increased by 46 percent, from 44,000 to 64,000. Labor turnover is also higher in Damascus, especially in the older textile factories. This can be explained by the greater concentration of service and office workers in the capital, while proximity to the centers of power multiplies the opportunities for patronage and promotion. The social mobility of Damascus is quite different from the relative stability of the social structure in Aleppo, and this has important political consequences. It may account for the reason the Muslim Brothers and the communists have more influence in Aleppo (among the workers as well as the larger population). In Damascus, though, the government has no trouble keeping things under control. And in the province of Hama, where a process of intensive industrialization has been going on outside the city for 20 years, recently recruited workers from the surrounding rural areas apparently supported the regime’s assault against the revolt there because of the historical antagonism between city and countryside. The contradictions and the limitations of the trade union movement can be explained primarily by this situation.

Nearly 20 years ago, the GFTU set qualitatively new goals for itself during its 1968 congress. It would not only defend the material and moral interests of the workers, but also help to build the new Arab socialist society by contributing to the technical and political formation of the workers. The slogan “political unionism” was first heard at the 1972 congress and was the subject of debate during the 1974 and 1978 congresses. In 1982, the slogan had become, “There is no life without progress and socialism” (la hayat fi hadha al-qutr illa lil-taqaddum wa al-ishtirakiyya). A great ambiguity lies in the gap between the words and the reality.

The trade unions have a very powerful organization today. They have changed a great deal since the time of the nationalizations and the regime’s affirmation of socialism. Membership is practically obligatory in the public sector, where 95 to 99 percent of the workers are unionized. As a general rule, the new worker is enrolled automatically without being asked. This is not the case in the private sector, of course. The dispersion and the small scale of independent operators and private producers make it difficult to get an exact idea of union membership.

Every company with at least 50 workers has a union committee. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees join together to make up the required number and form a committee. The committee is elected at a general meeting, and elections are held at the time of the general congress, every two years until 1974 and every four years thereafter. Local union committees elect the branch committees, which in turn elect the leadership.

The manner in which these elections unfold is characteristic of relations between the leadership and the base. Usually there is only one list, consisting of the representatives of the parties in the front officially in power; it often happens that the list is made up entirely of Baathists. Sometimes alternate lists, or rather individuals, will present themselves. They are usually activists in the left-wing parties or members of the opposition front of dissident communists and Nasserists, Muslim Brothers or independents. These candidates are rarely elected, but in the fall of 1978 discontent with the deteriorating standard of living was translated into the election of a number of candidates who ran against the official list. By 1982, the government had regained control. Then, when internal conflicts in the Baath broke into the open in the spring of 1984, and resulted in the semi-disgrace of Rif‘at al-Asad, the government felt compelled to allot available slots to the competing tendencies in the party, and potential opposition candidates became “convinced” of the futility of running.

Unions and Workers

Overall, the unions seem to be more or less artificially tacked on to factory life. Workers take little interest in them, all the more so when elected representatives are likely to use their position to improve their personal situation rather than represent the opinions and defend the interests of their comrades. This is even more true of recently established companies, where workers are less familiar with the idea that they can make themselves heard collectively. It is in the older establishments that the traditional spirit of contention is found in its most developed form, and where the union is the most responsive to its base. It is not by chance that the sharpest critical analyses have come out of the Damascus textile union, even though the accelerated flight of the work force can only weaken this tradition.

This does not mean that the trade union movement has made no gains, or that the situation in Syria is comparable to one where trade unionism is completely banned by a dictatorial regime. The unions do provide a number of services that should not be overlooked. Of course, when a company cafeteria is set up or transportation is provided for the workers, it is not always clear whether the improvement is due to an “effective” union leadership or a “generous” management. Nevertheless, it is an improvement. We mentioned earlier that public sector workers are the primary beneficiaries of these services, since they are often provided within the framework of the company. In the private sector, only the minority who belong to the union receive such services. Nevertheless, union clinics and pharmacies play a significant role, in the absence of a social security system, by providing workers in small establishments (and especially their families) with medical services that are otherwise guaranteed only to workers in the largest establishments. [14]

It sometimes happens, particularly in the petroleum industry, that the union committee actually takes up the defense of the workers it is supposed to represent. But “political unionism” rules out any irregular political stance. It is when this rule is broken, and only then, that repression is brought down upon the workers. Yet even while the union is tightly controlled by the regime and corrupted by personal ambition and the widespread search for individual solutions, it does allow independent and sometimes even courageous analyses to emerge from the grumbling in the ranks, thanks to a few honest and committed activists who are usually very isolated and demoralized. This small margin of autonomy shrinks as one rises in the hierarchy, and although positions in defense of the workers’ interest are sometimes expressed even in the congresses, the best resolutions go unheeded. If this limited autonomy did not exist, it would have been necessary to create a system with no union at all — such as the army enterprises!

It is difficult to pass judgment on the overall role of the union. One disillusioned trade unionist, trying not to be overwhelmed by his own pessimism, told me that “the leadership is ahead of the consciousness of the ranks,” which he attributed to “the advancement of the relations of production over the forces of production” (!), hence the difficulty of solving all of the problems. Such an all-purpose explanation is clearly insufficient, but in a society undergoing such rapid change, it is even less satisfactory to blame the failure of the trade union movement on a few corrupt leaders.


[1] Elisabeth Longuenesse, La classe ouvriere en Syrie, une classe en formation (PhD thesis: Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales, University Rene Descartes, Paris, 1977).
[2] These figures do not include those employed in small shops. These are extremely important, particularly in the manufacture of clothing and hosiery.
[3] See the reports regularly published in Syrie et Monde Arabe.
[4] Damascus Labor Union, Etude sur revolution des prix et la difference entre les tarifications de l’Etat et la situation de marche, et les consequences sur l’equilibre entre les sdaires et les prix, June 6, 1983.
[5] Quoted in Nidal al-Sha‘b (organ of the pro-government Syrian Communist Party) (July 1984).
[6] See the interviews with union officials of the Organization of Metallurgical and Mechanical Engineering Industries in Tishrin, August 14, 1984, and union officials of the Damascus Organization of Dairy Industries in al-Ba‘th, August 13, 1984.
[7] Elisabeth Longuenesse, “Travail et rapports de production en Syrie, une enquete sur les travailleurs de la bonneterie a Damas,” Bulletin d’Etudes Orientales 32-33 (1980-1981), and “Structure de la main d’oeuvre industrielle et rapports de production en Syrie (Etude de eas: presentation d’une enquete sur la main d’oeuvre de la Societe Arabe Unifiee pour l’lndustrie Textile-Dibs),” Colloque sur l’Origine et l’Evolution de la Glasse Ouvnere dans le Monde Arabe, Institut Arabe d’Education Ouvriere et d’Histoire du Travail, Algiers, February 23-26, 1981.
[8] Longuenesse, “Structure de la main d’oeuvre industrielle.”
[9] The Hama ironworks is one example (see Kifah al-‘Ummal al-Ishtiraki, the weekly paper of the GFTU, August 13, 1984, p. 6); another is the Damascus Dairy Product Company (see al-Ba‘th, August 13, 1984, p. 5).
[10] Syrie et Monde Arabe (May 1984). While the Gulf states had promised to contribute $1.8 billion a year, Syria received only $1.6 billion in 1979, $1.4 billion in 1980 and between $0.8 and $1 billion per year since then.
[11] Congress of the Damascus Textile Union, February 1984.
[12] Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Mahmoud ‘Abd al-Fadil, Intiqal al-‘Amila al- Arabiyya [Arab Labor Migration] (Beirut: Center for the Study of Arab Unity), pp. 51, 63.
[13] State of Kuwait, Annual Statistical Abstract, 1976; and Fuad al-Farsy, Saudi Arabia, A Case Study in Development (Boston: Kegan, 1982), pp. 82-84.
[14] A social security law was passed in 1979. The government issued the first decrees concerning its implementation in the spring of 1984; this sparked off controversy in the unions and the press, since the lack of medical infrastructure is such that the law could have no practical effect except as a public relations move.

How to cite this article:

Elisabeth Longuenesse "The Syrian Working Class Today," Middle East Report 134 (July/ August 1985).

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