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Jordan Admits Foreign Workers Were Abused In Sweatshops

Associated Press  |  May 3, 2006  |  Share

Jordan Admits Foreign Workers Were Abused In Sweatshops

AP (via CNNmoney.com) May 3, 2006

AMMAN (AP)--Jordan acknowledged Wednesday that foreign workers were abused in the country's export textile sweatshops, responding to a report by a U.S. rights group that detailed the violations.

Labor Minister Bassem al-Salem told The Associated Press that his ministry has "huge violation files on several companies" operating in free-trade zones, some housing joint ventures with Israel.

He said his ministry had closed down some violators, but added that it hasn't "won the war as other companies will spring up continuously with new names."

The New York-based advocacy group National Labor Committee wrote a scathing report alleging serious abuses of foreign workers producing garments for export to Target Corp. (TGT) and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), among other U.S.-owned retail giants, in Jordan's free-trade zones.

The 168-page report, "U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement Descends into Human Trafficking and Involuntary Servitude," paints a desperate picture of Asians slaving away in the country's lucrative export clothing trade.

Al-Salem met earlier Wednesday with Jordan's ruler, King Abdullah II, and Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit to discuss the report, according to his assistant, Mary Kawar.

The minister said he was finishing "a binding code of conduct to ensure that employers maintain decent working standards and conditions." He said work permits will only be accorded to factories adhering to the new standards.

The report alleged that mainly Bangladeshi and Chinese workers endure 20- hourworkdays, beatings by managers and imprisonment if complaints are made.

Payment is withheld for months and salaries are less than promised, and rape is reported, in some instances. Often workers' passports and identification papers are confiscated, restricting their movements.

NLC said it carried out research on the workers' treatment in Jordan and in Bangladesh, interviewing scores of former workers between May 2005 and April2006.

The report featured more than 25 factories out of roughly 100 located in Jordan's Qualified Industrial Zones.

There are five such zones set up in Jordan since 1998 - a move encouraged by the U.S. to bolster a peace treaty Jordan signed with Israel four years earlier. Exports from the zones enjoy U.S. tariff and quota exemptions.

The report said one factory, Al Shahaed Apparel and Textiles in Irbid, about80 kilometers north of the capital Amman, paid workers just two cents per hour compared to Jordan's legal minimum wage in the free zones of 58 cents per hour.

It alleged that workers at Al Shahaed had water available only every third day, were able to bathe only once a week and had to share accommodation with 28others in a small room.

Factory officials weren't available for comment.

But an Indian operations manager at Western Factory, another Irbid plant criticized in the report, angrily denied NLC's allegations that a handful of young women working at the factory had been raped.

"This is totally false," Mohamed Irfan told The AP in a telephone interview. "This is all wrong information," he said.

Western's Jordanian owner, Waleed Stafat, said "someone from Bangladesh working here before and who made mistakes is now saying bad things about the factory."

Although the international garment industry has adopted measures to help tackle abuses and improve conditions for workers in the developing world, activists say it's difficult to root out problems without an effective monitoring system in place.

Beth Keck, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, told The AP in a telephone interview from the U.S. that two inspectors from the company, who are Bengali and Sengalese speakers, were sent to Jordan on Tuesday after they were notified by the New York Times, which had received an advanced copy of the NLC report.

"With new information brought to light, we will focus on Jordan more intently," Keck said.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires 05-03-06 1614ET Copyright (c) 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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