May 2, 2006

Jordan: Globalization and Privatization... and the Peace Process

An article on the BBC discusses various issues that have come to my attention and piqued my interest over the past few years in the latest investments spreading across my native Jordan.
I heard about new factories being built in various parts of the country, many of which are hiring foreign workers with low wages in addition to some local laborers who are willing to accept the low pay. The products of course do not enter Jordanian markets under any circumstances; they are packed and shipped abroad (mainly to the US) immediately after they are produced. Free trade zones and special economic zones are also becoming popular as King Abdullah II pushes for more economic reform in the country.

The article focuses on the goals of these investors to bring Israel and Jordan closer through economic cooperation. I was surprised to find out that the free trade agreement between Jordan and the US is not as "free" as it appears.

More than a decade ago, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. But it is cold peace - there is little trade or travel between the two countries.

Among ordinary Jordanians, the treaty is deeply unpopular.

Hence this scheme designed to encourage interaction between the two countries.

The jeans being made in Jordan are allowed into the United States without duty or quota restrictions.

To secure that valuable concession, they must have 8% Israeli contents.

One would imagine that such "cooperation" would at least involve some benefit for Jordanians, businessmen or laborers. As the article states, that is simply not the case. The majority of the factory owners are not Jordanian, and most of the workers are foreigners. From what I heard, they are as diverse as Chinese, Indian, Russian, Filipino, Taiwanese, etc.

As in many countries, including here in the US, foreigners are more willing to take on menial jobs that pay less because the remittances they send back home are worth much more than in the US. Jordanians aren't any different, except that many more Jordanians are unemployed and poor than Americans. However, I would disagree with the article regarding the cultural barriers, which I believe are much less prevalent today because of the real need for money to come into the home, even if that means the wife/daughter/sister has to work.

Many Jordanians are reluctant to take on jobs in which the basic wage is only US$80 a month. But there are cultural issues as well. Jordanian men are cautious about allowing women to go to work especially for a foreign boss.

This should not be surprising, seeing that the cost of practically everything in Jordan is continuously on the rise, most recently fuel prices. An article in the Jordanian newspaper Alghad featured on Jameed raises questions about the conditions under which laborers are required to work. The woman discussed in the article is paid a mere 95JD ($135), most of which is spent on transportation and personal expenditures which barely leaves anything for the family. The 25-year-old Jordanian woman explains that the only reason one would seek to work under such conditions for such little pay is they are "running away from starvation." Another woman who works at a similar factory explains that the "stigma" of not allowing women to work has largely disappeared in many rural areas.

The government officials and businessmen behind these efforts seem to think that it might bring about a change in the Jordanian perspective towards Israel. Having similar economic interests should make people forget about politics, right? Well, not exactly. For the businessmen who come from the upper echelons of Jordanian society, that might be possible. But for the average Jordanian (one likely to have roots in Palestine), opinions on Israel will remain the same.

Despite the problems, Montaser Oklah, of the Jordanian Ministry of Industry and Trade, extolled the virtues of the scheme.

"Politically speaking, it is an excellent tool devised by the United States to privatise the peace process," he explained.

"What is meant by that is to allow people from both sides - the Jordanians, the Israelis as well as the Palestinians - to feel and realise the benefits of the peace process."

But even he admits it has done little to change attitudes in Jordan towards Israel.

"When you go out into the streets and speak to the average Jordanian citizen, he or she will start talking about the number of people that are being killed, the number of bombs that are being exploded and they will not tell you anything about the new jobs being established, about the total exports that have been boosted as a result.

The article ends on a less than optmistic note, leaving one sorry for Israel because its efforts in attempting to pursue economic ventures with Arab countries have not proven very successful.

Although the general "Arab street" would be against extensive economic cooperation with Israel, in reality, most Arab leaders would jump at this opportunity and would much rather put politics aside in favor of $$$.

For Jordanians, these investments don't seem to be bringing much change or "development", as many of these factories do not even provide safe working conditions, health insurance, social security, and other problems related to delays in salary payments as mentioned in the Alghad article. The head of the union of workers in one region, Fathallah Alomrani, suggests that the minimum wage be raised to at least 150 JD.

Today, the Jordanian government decided to raise it to from 95 JD to 110 JD, a good start, but not anywhere close to what Jordanians really need to be living a descent life.

It seems like we will just have to "wait and see" how far such economic reforms will go and if they really will benefit the average Jordanian.

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