The profitable, but risky, day labor in Homs

A day laborer in an olive grove in Idlib province – 16 October 2020 (Enab Baladi – Iyad Abdul Jawad)

A day laborer in an olive grove in Idlib province – 16 October 2020 (Enab Baladi – Iyad Abdul Jawad)

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Dozens of laborers are brought from Homs province to collect olive and pistachio crops from the fields across the suburbs south of Idlib and north of Hama, that are at the same time a frontline. To score their day’s bread, the laborers have to circumvent landmines and dodge bullets the whole time. 

“The place here is reassuring; I do my job knowing that I deserve every penny I am paid,” Umm Muhammad told Enab Baladi, her clothes wet from washing the third carpet this day.

She puts the tobacco from her box into a roll and asks the housewife she is helping for a cup of coffee, wishing to regain her energy. “But I have to provide my children’s needs for winter. I want to be able to buy meat,” the thirty-something woman added, pointing to her “well-paid” work in these fields.

Olive, pistachio, and landmines

A ceasefire was enforced last March in the rural parts south of Idlib and north of Hama. However, combat halted after the Russia-backed Syrian government forces made major advances into the area through a military campaign that peaked early in 2020. The campaign forced over a million of these areas’ residents out of their homes. The displaced abandoned their fields and groves that amount to an estimated 60 percent of arable lands within the areas held by the opposition.

The olive groves, where Umm Muhammad has been working for a month, are in the areas retaken by the government forces during their last offensive, particularly those in Maaret al-Numan, Sraqib, and Khan Shaykhun.

Umm Muhammad is a widow with three boys to fend for. Living in al-Rastan, a city in Homs province, she had been a breadwinner for the past eight years, grabbing any job opportunities she is offered.

“The wages are lucrative; the working conditions are poor though. The overseers are members of the Air Intelligence and security personnel of the 4th Division,” she said. “They lack respect and do not allow the workers an adequate respite. We work from 6 am to 3 pm nonstop, with only half an hour as a break.”

Over 150 workers are transported aboard buses to the Maaret al-Numan city, Umm Muhammad told Enab Baladi. There, work trucks take them to the groves in question. “These groves are close to the war lines. Bigger buses do not go there for fear of being targeted.”

The ceasefire is maintained under Russia’s watch, but both sides to the agreement continued to violate its terms in the past few months. Local entities, concerned with documenting such abuses, register hundreds of attacks and shelling fits by the government forces and their Russian allies on civilian and military areas alike. The armed opposition factions, for their part, frequently announce thwarting attempted infiltrations into the area or targeting regime-affiliated personnel.

Landmines in the fields of al-Tamanah and Khan Shaykhun have repeatedly been exploding over August, claiming the lives of several workers, gathering olive and pistachio to survive the day. Despite these deadly conditions, the workers find the daily wages they are paid “tempting.”

Laborers are barely paid 1,500 Syrian pounds (SYP = 0.558 USD) per day for work at the olive groves in al-Rastan. Their counterparts in Idlib and Hama, however, are paid wages that amount to over 5000 SYPs —less than two USD. The latter group starts collecting olives in early November and stores the crops in a house designated for this purpose. The olives are then filled in bags and sent to olive oil mills in Mhardeh, a village in the suburbs north of Hama.

The Asset Management Committee of the head of the Military and Security Commission in Hama province held several public auctions in September and October. The committee offered the arable lands, whose owners are now residents of opposition-controlled areas, for investment.

The displaced farmers are denied access to their lands in the areas where government forces are regnant, but a number of them still risk their lives and attempt harvesting their crops from lands situated not very far from the active fighting fronts.

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