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Jordan Labor Conditions Improving But Problems Persist

Women's Wear Daily  |  January 9, 2008  |  Share  |  Source article

WASHINGTON — More than a year and a half after the National Labor Committee detailed poor working conditions in Jordanian apparel factories, the watchdog group, while acknowledging progress in the country, continues to find some abuses.

On Monday, the New York-based NLC said workers at the Classic Fashion Apparel Industry factory in Al Hassan Industrial City were set to return to work, at least on an interim basis, after striking over wages that they claimed were half of what was legally due them. The NLC, which first publicized the case last month, also said the workers, who made goods for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Gap Inc., among others, toiled in poor conditions.

Wal-Mart, which generally contracts out its apparel production, did not respond to a request for comment. A Gap spokeswoman said the company had identified several issues and is working to resolve them.

In November, the NLC charged that workers at the D.K. Garments factory, which produced bikinis and underwear for Victoria's Secret, toiled in poor conditions and were threatened with forced deportation after striking to protest the imprisonment of six co-workers. A spokeswoman for Limited Brands Inc., which owns Victoria's Secret, said the company moved immediately to "identify and address areas of concern."

Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the NLC, agreed the Limited has been "quite insistent on getting the workers back wages for overtime."

The NLC's recent allegations came in the wake of a May 2006 investigation that found working conditions there were generally below what was allowed by Jordanian law and prompted a review by Jordanian and U.S. authorities.

Jordanian officials mobilized, putting together a plan calling for 120 new labor inspectors, higher pay, a hotline workers could call to register complaints in their native languages and a new monitoring program based on a model successfully employed in Cambodia. The country's factory inspection apparatus in Jordan remains a work in progress.

"They're still running with perhaps an inadequate budget," said Kernaghan. "There are too many mistakes in their research. I don't find it credible anymore. We're getting appeals from Jordan, several a week now. This thing isn't working like it was supposed to work."

The minimum wage was increased to the equivalent of about $155 a month, up from $130, and the hotline was set up, but only eight inspectors have been added and 60 more are expected to be put in place this year. The monitoring program, which is slated to receive $2.7 million in U.S. funding, is set to start up in the next few months.

"You're going to have allegations [of labor abuses] until everything that we've been talking about is put in place, regretfully, until we have 120 inspectors, until we have adequate financing," Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, Jordan's ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview. "It just goes without saying that we all have to do more at every level, at the factory level, at the company level, at the host-state level, until we can eradicate what is obviously a scourge."

Jordan has done what it can with its limited resources, he said.

"One assumes that those leading the companies would be more sensitive to, one, Jordanian law, and two, to the humanitarian conditions of their own workers," said the ambassador. "As it transpired, we may have assumed wrongly. So we are learning."

The U.S. government has been involved because goods made in Jordan can gain duty-free entry to America under a free trade agreement with the Middle East country and a second arrangement under a U.S.-Israeli trade pact.

"Overall, we're very pleased with progress in Jordan," said a spokesman in the office of U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab. "Jordan has been responsive to [NLC] reports, investigating all of the allegations and addressing problems in factories. The U.S. government is providing assistance, as are international organizations, to help Jordan continue to build capacity so its Labor Ministry can continue to enforce its laws."

Fashion executives and government officials, while charging that some of the specific allegations in the NLC's work are dated or inaccurate, say the general thrust of its findings are usually on target. For his part, Kernaghan wonders how brands with codes of conduct and inspectors can miss abuses, such as the poor conditions he alleges persist in some Jordanian factories.

"Nobody's exactly right on the issue, but everybody's working toward the same goal of improving labor working conditions in Jordan," said Nate Herman, director of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. "The industry has made great strides through the last decade [on labor issues], but we also recognize we have a long way to go."

Apparel imports from Jordan, made primarily by foreign workers there, weighed in at $1.1 billion for the 12 months ended Oct. 31, up from just over $50 million in 2000.


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