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Testimony by Charles Kernaghan on the proposed Canada-Jordan FTA

October 18, 2010  |  Share


House of Commons
Standing Committee on International Trade
Canada-Jordan Free Trade Agreement 

October 18, 2010

Testimony by
Charles Kernaghan
Director, National Labor Committee


I want to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify on the proposed Canada-Jordan Free Trade Agreement.

In the United States, we are nearly nine years into the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement, but I am very disturbed to report that thousands of foreign guest workers in Jordan continue to be stripped of their passports, forced to work grueling 99 ½ hour work weeks, while being shortchanged of their rightful wages, housed in overcrowded, primitive dorms infested with bedbugs and subjected to verbal and physical abuse.  Despite the fact that garments sewn in Jordan enter the U.S. duty-free, guest workers in Jordan still do not have the right to organize a union.  The Ministry of Labor in Jordan remains either incompetent or unwilling to implement Jordan's labor laws and the country's commitments under the U.S.-Jordan FTA.  What is even worse is that the Ministry of Labor provides cover to abusive factories such as Classic Apparel, which produces for Wal-Mart, by putting Classic on their "Golden List" of factories that are in full compliance with local and international labor laws.

The Indian-owned Classic Fashion Apparel Industry Ltd Co. is housed in the Al Hassan Industrial Area in Irbid, Jordan.  Classic Fashion is a large apparel manufacturer with six plants in Al Hassan where approximately 4,000 foreign guest workers from Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Bangladesh toil under harsh and illegal sweatshop conditions.

The majority of production at Classic, approximately 60 percent, is for Wal-Mart's "Danskin Now" label.  Other labels include Macy's "Style & Co" jeans, Fruit of the Loom, Russell, Hanes (including "Champion"), Sears and Talbots.  The fact that so many large apparel companies and retailers could not uncover the harsh sweatshop conditions at their contractor's Classic factory proves once again that corporate monitoring does not work.

I would like to provide a summary of the illegal sweatshop conditions at Classic Fashion.  (A full report will be attached to this testimony.)

  • Passports of approximately 2,000 guest workers illegally confiscated by factory management.
  • All overtime is mandatory, and workers are routinely at the Classic factory up to 99 ½ hours a week.  This includes a grueling, forced 24 ½ hour all-night shift each week from 7:30 a.m. Thursday morning straight through to 8:00 a.m. Friday morning.  Overtime hours exceed Jordan's legal limit by 214 percent.
  • Workers report being cheated of 41 to 46 percent of the wages legally due them.  Workers should be earning $75.96 to $78.24 for the 89 ½ to 92-hour workweek.  Instead they earn just $32.69 to $35.29.
  • Physical abuse, beatings and threats by management are the norm.  In mid-September 2010, a Sri Lankan production manager, Mr. Sorminda, slapped a sewing operator, Ms. Kumari, for failing to reach her mandatory production goal.  Mr. Faruk, also a production manager, punched a mechanic, Mr. Sabuj, when he refused to unload fabric, protesting that he was a skilled mechanic and not a manual laborer.  Mr. Monos, Classic's accountant, routinely curses, pushes and slaps workers who ask for clarification regarding how their overtime was calculated, as what they are paid is far below what they are owed.  In early September, Mr. Monos hit Ms. Debika, a sewing operator, when she questioned her pay.
  • The primitive, overcrowded worker dorms are infested with bed bugs.  Despite their exhaustion after working 14 ½ to 15 hours a day, workers have trouble sleeping due to constant bed bug bites, which are painful and itchy and often lead to swelling and infections.  Workers report that water in both the factory and dorm is not potable, and the workers frequently suffer dysentery.  Factory food is of low quality and often rotten.
  • Workers, especially women, have no freedom of movement.  Security guards lock the workers in their dorm compounds, prohibiting them from leaving even on their day off on Friday when the workers typically shop.

It has been our experience over the years that positive change in Jordan with regard to the legal rights of factory workers producing duty-free goods for export to the U.S. has not been driven internally from the Jordanian Ministry of Labor, Jordanian or U.S. officials responsible for overseeing compliance with binding commitments under the U.S.-Jordan FTA, nor has it come as a result of corporate monitoring of contractors' plants.

It is the tens of thousands of foreign guest workers in Jordan who have initiated change by reaching out to international human and labor rights NGOs like the National Labor Committee and the United Steelworkers Union.

I would like to give you the example of a Canadian-owned apparel company, Nygard International, which was the largest producer at the IBG Factory #1 in the Ad Dulayl Industrial Park in Jordan.

In April 2010, we reported that 1,200 guest workers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India-75 percent of them women-had been trafficked to the IBG factory in the Ad Dulayl Industrial Park, where they were stripped of their passports and held under conditions of indentured servitude.  The major producer at IBG Factory #1 was Nygard International.

The workers were forced to work 16-hour shifts, from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., seven days a week.  There were also mandatory all-night, 23-hour shifts at least once a week, running from 7:00 a.m. straight through to 6:00 a.m. the following morning.  The exhausted workers were routinely at the factory over 110 hours a week.  Workers were cheated of their legal wages, earning an average of just 35 cents an hour, while the minimum wage in Jordan is 74 ½ cents.  For working 102 ½ hours a week, the workers were paid, at most, just $35.77.

When workers asked for the return of their passports and to be paid correctly, they were slapped and threatened with forcible deportation.  There were credible allegations of sexual harassment and even the rape of a young Sri Lankan woman.  Workers reported that at least two of their colleagues had been overworked to death.  The workers were housed in filthy, primitive dorms not fit for human beings.  The dorms lacked heat, and water was only sporadically available, for one or two hours, three or four days a week.  The dorms were so infested with bed bugs that the exhausted workers had trouble sleeping.  Shown pictures of the insects, a leading entomologist confirmed that the bed bugs were engorged with blood.

For at least a year, every single labor law in Jordan had been blatantly violated in broad daylight at the IBG plant.  Yet, incredible as it sounds, the Jordanian Ministry of Labor had not only tolerated these gross human and women's rights violations, but had placed the abusive IBG plant on their "Golden List" of best factories, exactly as is now the case with the Classic factory.

I am glad to say that after we released our report in April 2010 on Nygard's production at the IBG factory, conditions have drastically improved.  There are still some problems, but for the time being, IBG is among the better factories in Jordan.  These improvements were entirely due to the brave garment workers, who stood up to struggle for their legal rights.

Again, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss the significant changes that must be required of the Jordanian Government, and in particular the Ministry of Labor, before any free trade agreement will live up to its commitment to respect worker rights.

Testimony by Tim Waters on the proposed Canada-Jordan FTA (October 18, 2010)

NLC's report on Classic Fashion (November 10, 2010)

An Update of the International British Garment Factory (October 18, 2010)

USW's Press Release (October 18, 2010)

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