May 3, 2006

Free Trade Brings Sweatshops to Jordan

What a coincidence that I just wrote yesterday about the increase in foreign investment in Jordan and efforts to bring Israeli and Jordanian investors together as a way to break barriers. I also pointed out in yesterday's post that these factories, which some consider to be the start of a budding relationship and improving economic conditions, do not have the best reputations in terms of abiding by labor laws.

Today, an article published in the New York Times highlights egregious abuses of labor laws and human rights laws in various factories across Jordan (more from Jordanian bloggers Khadder and Khalaf).

Such abuses are more likely to be found in American factories across China and East Asia, as well as some Gulf countries, which I discussed also in a earlier post.

But to hear that such abuses are now spreading in Jordan, I guess I shouldn't be shocked, but I am, and outraged!

The article is based on a report about Jordanian clothing factories released today by the National Labor Committee, which according to its website, has a mission "to help defend the human rights of workers in the global economy. The NLC investigates and exposes human and labor rights abuses committed by U.S. companies producing goods in the developing world."

THe NLC conducted extensive research throughout various factories in Jordan by speaking to workers, employers, and factory owners in an attempt to get a clear picture of what was really occurring behind closed doors.

Retailers like Wal-Mart, Kohl's, Target, Victoria's Secret, L.L. Bean, and Kmart are all taking advantage of the cheap labor and weak labor laws apparently taking root in Jordan.

The article highlights accusations of human trafficking, Bangladeshi, Indian, Chinese, and Sri Lankan workers paying $1000-$3000 to get to Jordan after being promised decent working conditions, only to find out that nothing of what they were told was true. Their passports are confiscated by some factory owners, preventing them from leaving the country, quitting the job, or even attempting to complain to authorities. When government officials and representatives of the US companies visit the factories for routine checks, workers are forced to lie and not speak of any violations or abuses.

One woman speaks about her experience:
"We used to start at 8 in the morning, and we'd work until midnight, 1 or 2 a.m., seven days a week," said Nargis Akhter, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi who, in a phone interview from Bangladesh, said she worked last year for the Paramount Garment factory outside Amman. "When we were in Bangladesh they promised us we would receive $120 a month, but in the five months I was there I only got one month's salary — and that was just $50."
Not surprisingly, Jordanian officials denied any wrongdoing and insisted that investigations will be conducted. Similarly, representatives of the American companies insisted that when they found problems, they asked the factory to fix them, and that they were not aware of any large scale violations.

Head of the NLC also discussed what he saw in Jordan:
"These are the worst conditions I've ever seen," he said. "You have people working 48 hours straight. You have workers who were stripped of their passports, who don't have ID cards that allow them to go out on the street. If they're stopped, they can be imprisoned or deported, so they're trapped, often held under conditions of involuntary servitude."
As Jordanian blogger Khadder points out in his commentary on this article, such abuses will only serve to plant seeds of resentment in our country and will damage efforts of cooperation between our region and the rest of Asia and other countries. He adds that the losers are the people of Jordan and the evironment, and to a bigger extent, the workers who are dragged to such factories and treated practically as slaves. The only people benefitting are the handful of Jordanian "investors" who are able to evade taxes, as well as the their partners on the other side of the world, the American company owners.

Khalaf criticizes the Jordanian government's decision to grant such companies deferrals on implementing the new minimum wage rate in Jordan. He adds, "Applying Jordanian labor laws stringently towards both Jordanian and guest workers is both a moral and an economic duty. It is unacceptable that these abuses continue under the pretence of encouraging investment."

Needless to say, I agree with both of them, and am ashamed to see that Jordan has reached a point where we are accused of housing sweatshops on our own land. It might appear to many of these upper class investors and government officials that they are indeed helping Jordanians by encouraging foreign investment and thereby helping our economy. In reality, however, Jordan doesn't need this bad publicity and doesn't need to be taken advantage of by companies in developed countries such as the US who know that they cannot overlook the same kinds of violations in their own countries without being penalized for them.

Hopefully, Jordanian officials will realize that this type of mistreatment needs to be addressed immediately before it becomes widespread and even worse in nature.

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At 2:10 PM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Hi Moi: Of course, I enjoyed reading this post. What really is amazing to me is that the markups on clothes are astronomical. I mean, if the profit margins were low, one might be able to understand trying to cut labor costs. It seems to me that the whole thing is pure greed. But it's not the industry's job to police itself (although it is a moral responsibility), but that of the government.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Tommy said...


It sounds like your rather skeptical about the benefits of free trade and of illegal immigration.

Maybe you should consider becoming a conservative, like me. LoL. ;-)

At 2:20 PM, Blogger moi said...

Exactly, the cost is nothing compared to how much this stuff is being sold for! My grandfather in Irbid has a tenant who is the manager of one of these factories. They make top quality men's suits for American stores like JCPenny. Technically, they are not allowed to remove any piece from the factory, but he let my grandfather buy it for a low price because they are friends. When my family saw the suit, we were shocked; here in the US it would cost at least $250! That's about one month's salary for three workers in one of these factories, if they get paid that is!
But like you said before, it's simply greed. If they know they can make the product at such low cost, then why not? Most of them could care less when it comes to morality in the face of millions of $$$.

At 2:25 PM, Blogger moi said...

Tommy, haha, thanks but no thanks.
The case is different in Jordan because these workers would not be considered immigrants, per se. Even if they are, I think the solution is not to kick them out if they are providing needed services (as some conservatives here want), but to provide them with their rights like any other workers. The least we can do is pay them on time, provide safe/humane working/living conditions, and not "trap" them by confiscating passports, IDs and such. That's simply against the law and against all international labor and human rights laws.

At 4:32 PM, Blogger الفلسطينية said...

i honestly was not surprised to hear the news only cuz lately ive been seeing alot of stuff thats been tagged "made in jordan". it is a shame- i wish jordanian officals, like u said, would put a stop to this but that doesnt seem likely; at least not in the near future.

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Abed. Hamdan said...



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