Disempowering freelancers: The uninspired rules for home-based businesses

Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
For someone who has freelanced for a long time, mainly on-and-off and in between formal employment stints, it is quite hard to give up my freedom for a relatively new set of poorly-written rules aimed at making my home-based practice “legal.”اضافة اعلان

To put it bluntly, whoever wrote the Greater Amman Municipality’s (GAM) “Home-Based Business Regulations,” introduced in 2017 and masterminded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) since 2014, has no clue how real-life freelancing in the creative sector works.

These rules, designed to license “home-based businesses” (HBBs) — probably a pilot program to be mimicked across the Kingdom — have so many problems and loopholes it is hard to believe it took 3 years to conceptualize and then draft into a set of guidelines — albeit lacking on more than one level.

On the plus side, these regulations are surprisingly backed up by what looks like thorough research, surveys that highlight the experiences of (mainly) women wanting to make a living from their homes, and a lot of lobbying and advocacy on the part of the USAID, working industriously to change relevant laws (like “zoning”) across other Jordanian governmental departments, so as to make the rules for licensing HBBs a reality.

One may arrive to these conclusions after visiting USAID’s own website, Jordanlens.org, where the agency details in great transparency every step it has taken since 2014 to regulate the Jordanian “informal market” of HBBs, under a program called USAID LENS, short for “Local Enterprise Support Project.” There is even a page with a timeline detailing the project’s milestones and the different stages of the program.

Despite all the behind-the-scenes hard work, the end result is undeniably not up to par

The “actual regulations,” and the “communication tools” aiming to help a target audience of regular citizens understand the steps needed to start a business at home (with the use of simplified lingo mainly through the website “Startup Guide Jordan” on Startupguidejo.com), are philosophically and structurally deficient.

It would be impossible to list all of these issues in one article. That is why I’m hoping to write future pieces, with a different angle each time, critiquing these regulations. Worth noting, this happens to be the second in a series of op-eds investigating real-life obstacles to earning a living in Jordan as a stay-at-home creative freelancer, my experience being an anecdotal testimony. The first article, published last week, was titled, “Disempowering citizens: The economic inequity of Jordan’s anti-money laundering law.”

Today, the focus is on the Home-Based Business Regulations’ problematic model: The USAID, and the government stakeholders it has worked with, have lumped different groups of people and vocations together under one roof, in some instances subjecting them all to the same treatment, although they are completely different from one another.

Making food, creating handcrafts, and fixing electricity have nothing to do with the type of “freelancing” that falls under the “creative industries” umbrella. The type of work I do as a creative freelancer is completely different from an at-home business offering customers an array of tangible products and services like pickles, chocolate, or even home repair. How come we all have to undergo a similar licensing process, mainly the dreaded “site visit,” when we are so different? More on that in a future article.

The Europeans would have done things differently.

A few years back, the Jordan chapter of the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC), along with partners like the British Council and Institut Français in Amman, championed a program called “Creative Jordan.” It had a distinct socio-cultural flavor and an original approach to empowering local creatives. A few years earlier, the British Council had also invited creatives and media people to roundtables and discussions — with a distinct “participatory approach” — to boost the “creative industries” in Jordan and the Levant.

In 2013 for instance, the “Creative Jordan” program was still in its advocacy stage. It offered workshops, events and an online directory designed to empower and encourage local creative-industry players to take their work to the next level, by making them aware of their role in fueling the economy as a distinct and homogenous workforce, comprising graphic designers, visual artists, illustrators, and performance artists, among others. “Creative Jordan” also gave some focus to the challenges arising from choosing a creative career in this part of the world, especially with parents and society still bent on encouraging career paths within a formal employment setting, all while discouraging freelancing and entrepreneurship.

Back then, I thought “Creative Jordan” had the potential (and maybe the intention) to eventually evolve into some kind of framework to help support Jordan’s creatives in negotiating better contracts, with an eye towards making a better income, and eventually become a significant contributor to the GDP.

Although the Europeans’ work was fairly visible at the time, the USAID makes an entrance in 2014 with the idea of creating a legal framework for home-based businesses, where it has lumped the creative industries together with handcrafts and food preparation, generating an indiscriminate mass.

A more culturally-aware partner, like the British or the Europeans, would have been a better choice as the Jordanian government’s “co-authors” of a legal framework for creative freelancers. The results would have been more productive with the promise of taking Jordanian talent to the next level. The UK’s body of work in this regard offers plenty of evidence they know how to build a complete ecosystem that promises to evolve into a full-fledged economic sector, not just a few orphaned regulations that lack a basic roadmap.

This brings us to the burning question: Does the Jordanian government, represented by the Ministry of Planning, which is mandated with overseeing foreign aid and financing, know which international partners are best suited for which projects?

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