According to a recent publication by the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics the average 2009 monthly salary was SYP11,000 (US$234). The same document listed the average household expenditure during the same year at SYP30,000 (US$638) per month. Equally disturbing is the fact that government jobs paid higher than those in the private sector. One last finding, which might be of interest to some, was that women were fairing slightly better than men as far as average wages are concerned.
Officially disclosed salaries in the Syrian private sector range from the minimum full-time wage of $125 to $42,000 a month. Although I am running the risk of being repetitive and for the sake of clarification, I need to rephrase the last statement. There are private companies and institutions in Syria where one employee is making (in salary) as much as 336 of his co-workers. I emphasized the word employee in order for the reader not to get the matter confused thinking that I meant the owner of the company or the institution.
This is our current state of affairs in a nutshell and 15 years after the government cut the leash and set loose a whimpering private sector in an attempt to help rebuild the dismal economy. What did the rising stars of the Syrian open market and trendy society, the Nouveau Riche and Old Money, the crooks and their offspring, the deserving self-made millionaires and the rarest of them all, the honest entrepreneurs contribute to this country besides sucking it dry of resources, potential and wealth and devastating its environment? If we neglect to mention the pious alms and free dinners (Iftar) they offer to the poor in Ramadan (with an outlandish public exposure); if we turn a blind eye toward the human rights abuses inflicted on their employees, the miserable working conditions, the one-day only weekend, the total absence of medical coverage, the depressing pensions (still offered by the state and not by the private sector), the rampant corruption they are themselves feeding and institutionalizing; what else did they really do? How would a neutral yet informed observer, from the inside or out, rate the private sector in Syria?
Take a 15 minute ride with me through Damascus in an 8 million Syrian Pounds Beemer ($170,000) or a battered Micro-Bus with 9 other sweaty (and stinking) passengers. We will begin our tour near one of the most depressing monuments of the city, the Four Seasons Hotel, where a waitress in the nondescript cafeteria makes $170 a month, working 8 hours a day, 6 days a week and serves coffee for $15 a cup. This is where the Crème de la Crème of Syrian business meet for a quick $100 buffet lunch (per person) and discuss the unreliability of the Syrian laborer then burp without leaving a tip. Less than a hundred meters away, there is a quaint public park lying in the shadow of the oppressive building where a young engaged couple sit on a wooden bench for hours dreaming of, someday, being able to afford an apartment somewhere, anywhere in or outside the city. They buy two coffees from a peddler for 20 cents a cup and nurse them with care to make them last. Apartments in Damascus vary in price like every other modern city of course. In the Western Malki area a nice apartment can fetch $6 million but it's not for them and they accept that. The cheapest 70 square meter box they can ever imagine buying lies 30 minutes or more out of the city limits and sells for $50,000. If they were both average wage earners and if they can go on living in the streets without a bite to eat (or a cup of coffee to drink) and if they save every penny they make it will take them 9 years to buy their dream home. By then, and with the current rate of runaway inflation they will be disappointed to find out that the price has doubled. They could have registered at a cooperative housing project and paid half their salaries until the project is completed in 20 years, on average. But they were wild and careless. They were not smart enough to live on a budget. No wonder our illustrious businessmen were complaining earlier about our unreliable labor.
We are near Kafar Souseh on our Damascene ride where the new trend of consumerism blatantly hit the city in the face. Malls were erected in record times but don't expect a Walmart-like affordable department store here. Blue jeans sell for as much as $400 a pair and an average apartment near the mall will set you 2 million dollars back. A couple of kilometers down the road is the Yarmouk Camp where refugees have settled, awaiting their return to Palestine, since 1948. Families of five persons or more live in single rooms in the back alleys of the neighborhood, in Damascus, the oldest city in the world, where a hotel charges $450 for a single room, no breakfast included, and where a janitor with a wife and kids have to live off the $200 his munificent boss is throwing at him every month.
I know you want me to stop both the depressing tour and post. I just want to provide an answer to a nagging question some of you might have by now. Who in the hell gets paid a salary of $42,000 a month in Syria? While the average accountant's monthly salary is $400 in the private sector, some accountants are making $20,000 and up. They have mastered a highly sought after skill, that of proving to the Ministry of Finance that their employer is breaking even while he's actually making billions in profits; or to a Qatari investor that a company is making billions in profits while it is barely breaking even; or to a Western Principal that a firm is spending millions of dollars on human resources and employees' satisfaction. These hard-to-find and honest accountants along with some private banks' presidents are being paid up to $42,000 a month by legitimate businessmen and businesswomen for their invaluable services, not only to their benevolent masters but to their thankless country as a whole and to all the despicably cantankerous, capricious and unreliable Syrian laborers out there.
"Kess Ekht Hal Zaman Yalli Khalla Al-Manayek Terkab Flayek" Tartoussi Proverb