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Jordan Cracks Down on Firms Exploiting Foreign Workers in Violation of Trade Pact

July 17, 2006  |  Share

Bureau of National Affairs

Bilateral Agreements:

Jordan Cracks Down on Firms Exploiting Foreign Workers in Violation of Trade Pact

By Gary G. Yerkey

The Jordanian government has facilitated in recent days the transfer of hundreds of Bangladeshi textile workers from companies implicated in workers' rights violations to other companies found to be in compliance with domestic labor law-- in a move designed at least in part to avoid the imposition of economic sanctions by the United States under the U.S.-Jordan free trade agreement.

Targeted in the move, overseen by the Ministry of Labor, were a total of 623 workers at seven companies in Jordan's Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs) who were transferred to factories owned by seven other firms.

Officials said that the offending companies were Saidan, Al Nahat, Panorama, Nash, Al Sharaf, Peace Gates, and Al Jabiri, and that the new employers are Classic Fashion, EAM Maliban, Mediterranean Resources, Advanced Technology, El Zay, Jordan Sun, and Jordache.

The move comes in the wake of recent promises by the Jordanian government to crack down on companies that exploit foreign workers, which followed a report earlier this year by the National Labor Committee--a workers' advocacy group based in New York--claiming that some textile and apparel manufacturers in Jordan and contractors that supply foreign workers to them, notably from Bangladesh, have been engaging in human trafficking and that foreign workers have complained of despicable working conditions in some factories, including 20-hour work days, no pay for months, and imprisonment for reporting supervisor abuse.

Last month, after meetings with U.S. trade officials and members of Congress in Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue, Jordanian Trade Minister Sharif Al Zu'bi told reporters that his government would take tough and immediate action against companies found to be in violation of Jordan's labor laws.

"We want trade and investment but not at any price," Zu'bi said. "We want clean investors....They either shape up or ship out."

Zu'bi said that the issue of sanctions did not come up in his visit, which included a meeting with Shaun Donnelly, assistant U.S. trade representative for Europe and the Middle East.

But the U.S.-Jordan free trade agreement, which took effect in 2001, contains provisions providing for bilateral consultations in disputes over workers' rights and the eventual application by the complaining party of "appropriate and commensurate" measures--widely understood to mean trade sanctions--in cases where disputes cannot be resolved.

Article 6 of the agreement requires both countries to enforce their own labor laws and to strive to ensure that internationally recognized labor standards--including the right to association, a prohibition against compulsory labor, and acceptable working conditions with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health--are "recognized and protected by domestic law."

Zu'bi said that Jordan will "do the right thing" and "flush out" the "bad apples" engaged in worker abuse.

He said that the Jordanian government has already moved against a number of offenders, including shutting down three textile factories, and that it plans to take a series of steps aimed at addressing the issue such as increasing the number of government inspectors (currently 88).

"Our inspection regime may have failed us and may have failed us miserably," Zu'bi said.

Donnelly, of USTR, said at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee May 18 that the allegations contained in the NLC report were very serious.

"We need to get to the bottom of this," he said. Zu'bi said June 16 that he had met personally with representatives of the 114 companies currently operating in Jordan's QIZs--occupied mainly by foreign owned companies, mainly Asian, and where 60 percent of their some 60,000 workers are foreign-born--and told them that the Jordanian government will not tolerate worker abuse.

He said that the problem appears to be confined to about 10 percent of the companies that produce textile and apparel for the U.S. market.

The QIZ program, established in 1996 to support the peace process in the Middle East, allow companies in certain U.S.-approved industrial parks to export goods duty-free to the United States.

Among the QIZs currently operating in Jordan are the Gateway QIZ on the northern Jordan-Israel border; the Al-Hassan Industrial Estate in Irbid; the Al- Tajamouat Industrial Estate in Amman; the Ad-Dulayl Industrial Park near Zarka; the Kerak Industrial Estate; Aqaba Industrial Estate; Jordan Cyber City in Irbid; Al-Qastal Industrial Zone in Amman; Mushatta International Complex in Amman; and El-Zai Readywear Manufacturing Co. in Zarqa.

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