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The Indignity of Labor: Are We Exploiting the QIZ Workforce?

July 17, 2006  |  Share

Jordan Business: June 2006

The Indignity of Labor: Are We Exploiting the QIZ Workforce?

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The treatment ofr Jordan's foreign labor force has come under intense scrutiny following an explosive report by a U.S.-advocacy group alleging dismal working conditions. Serene Al-Ahmad and Nisreen El-Shamayleh examine the report and look into the government and the private sector's efforts to contain the fallout. Photography by Faridon Abida and Serene Al-Ahmad

Hard Knock Life 


The Treatment of Jordan's foreign labor force has come under intense scrutiny following an explosive report by a U.S. advocacy group alleging dismal working conditions. Serene Al-Ahmad and Nisreen El-Shamayleh examine the report and look into the government and the private sector's efforts to contain the fallout.

Jordan's garment industry was thrown into the center of controversy after a report jointly compiled by the National Labor Committee (NLC), a nonprofit New York-based organization, and the United Steel Workers (USW) was published last month.

The 168-page report made fierce allegations of systematic abuse of foreign workers in factories operating in Jordan's Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs).

The report prompted four U.S. politicians to ask the Bush administration to re-examine the labor provisions set out in the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and Jordan.  The FTA stipulates that labor rights in Jordan must be enforced otherwise; the country could be subject to sanctions.

While complaints of abuse and exploitation have dogged the global garment industry for many years, the allegations, whether verified or not, have serious implications for Jordan.  The country's apparel industry exported a hefty $1.2 billion to the U.S. last year, relying on thousands of guest workers, mainly from Bangladesh, China, and Sri Lanka.  Garment exports accounted for 30% of the country's total exports in 2005.  Jordan's FTA with Washington, and QIZs in particular, have attracted hundreds of foreign companies to set up shop in the country, taking advantage of its privileged trade status with the U.S. - a relationship Jordan is very eager to protect.

Published under the appalling title Jordan Free Trade Agreement Descends into Human Trafficking and Involuntary Servitude, the NLC report surveyed just 28 out of the 104 companies operating in the QIZs, (over 90% of which are foreign-owned), revealing a catalogue of serious labor violations faced by workers in factories that produce garments for American companies including Target and Wal-Mart.

The report says workers complained of "dismal" and "substandard" conditions, saying they work 20-hour shifts and are not paid for months.  It said some workers were even beaten, jailed, and sexually abused. 

The most serious allegation made by the NLC, however, is that some apparel makers in Jordan, and some contractors that supply foreign workers to them, have engaged in human trafficking.  Workers from Bangladesh quoted in The New York Times, which first covered the report, said they paid between $1,000 and $3,000 to work in Jordan, but when they arrived, their passports were confiscated, tying them to jobs that often pay far less than promised, and less than the country's minimum wage.

To its credit, the Jordanian government took immediate action.  The Ministry of Labor (MoL) launched a two-week "intensive" inspection campaign covering companies mentioned as violators in the NLC report, as well as others that were not.  The ministry quickly issued its own report, admitting its failure in enforcing its own laws.

"There is no doubt that these are difficult working conditions and low wages.  Unfortunately, the garment industry is like that everywhere in the world, but this does not justify not giving salaries on time, not paying overtime, and providing minimum standards for workers," said Minister of Labor Basem Salem, who headed the government investigation.  While most employees in a media-shy industry refrained to comment, one worker from a factory cited in the NLC report told Jordan Business, "Our work is not easy.  We are forced to work overtime and we are not always paid for it.  We came to Jordan to work hard and make money for our families, but we do not always get our rights."

Commenting on the standard of living conditions, he said, "The rooms are very crowded, but the money is what matters to me."

Following its investigation, the MoL issued 59 penalties to some of the factories mentioned in the NLC report, 141 penalties to others not mentioned in the report, and it closed down two factories.  The MoL's report admitted to the existence of infringements of the Jordanian Labor Law by some factories.  These varied from violations in work permits, minimum wage requirements, and exceeding the maximum legal overtime, to passport confiscation and poor housing and sanitary conditions. Many of the NLC report's allegations, such as the employment of children, seven-day working weeks, and physical abuse, could not be verified.  However, in its 27-page report, the MoL admits that "workers did not divulge much information as the atmosphere must have been intimidating." On the other hand, the extent of accuracy of the NLC report remains in question.  Worker statements, many of which seem exaggerated, cannot be verified and factories still have the right to due process.  In addition, some factual inaccuracies were detected in the NLC report.  The MoL report found that three factories accused of violations in the NLC report were never operated in Jordan.  Three others, also accused of violations, were closed down last year, but they may have closed during the NLC investigation, which took place from May 2005 to April of this year.

It has also been suggested that the authors of the report have an internal political agenda.  Industry insiders said that the executive director of the NLC and author of the report, Charles Kernaghan, who has succeeded in shutting down factories in Central America and China, is adamantly opposed to free trade agreements.  The national director of USW, Tim Waters, as well as USW legislative representative Holly Hart, are said to carry similar views.

Whether or not the NLC report is balanced and responsible, the abuse of foreign workers in the QIZ has long been covered by local media, including Jordan Business.  There is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed.


Bearing the brunt

The MoL has shouldered much of the responsibility for the working conditions at the QIZs.  "We have an inefficient ministry that wasn't doing its job up to the required standards.  The government takes the NLC report very seriously.  Solving the problems will take time and is a continuous process that requires an upgrade of efforts," the minister of labor told Jordan Business in a candid interview.

In its report, the MoL admits to being at fault and criticized other official bodies, including the Ministry of Interior (MoI), the Ministry of Health (MoH), as well as the Jordan Investment Board (JIB), for a job poorly done.  The MoH failed to adequately monitor the quality of food, housing, and sanitary conditions in the QIZs, while the JIB did not verify "the solidity of investors" before granting them required licenses, the report stated.  It also reproached the MoI for not viewing migrant worker problems - related to issues such as confiscation of passports and nonpayment of wages - as part of trafficking and forced labor.

However, it is the private sector that should be the first to own up to its accountability.  It is the employers', and not the government's responsibility to provide a decent working environment for workers, both local and foreign, and - at the very least - to abide by the law.  Commenting on the issue, Jordan Garment, Accessories and Textiles Exporters' Association (JGATE) vice chairman Kamil Fakhoury said, "The NLC report categorized Jordan's garment industry, in its totality, into sweatshops, an overly stretched statement by any measure.  The reality is not as bleak as the report."

Mr. Fakhoury explained that many QIZ factories operating in Jordan and exporting to the U.S. "get cleared by American buying houses that show up unannounced and perform compliance audits" in all fields from quality, costs, security dimensions, shipping, to social and labor compliance. These audits happen at least once a year, sometimes twice or three times, he said.  "Why these violating companies were cleared in the compliance audits of the American buying houses is the golden question," Mr. Fakhoury said.  "There seems to be a conflict of interest.  Corporate America may need to neglect some violations in order to get things done, ship garments, and raise exports."

The manager of a factory in Sahab that was cited in the NLC report resoned, "We are trying to cope with the requested hours, which don't exceed two hours of overtime after the eight-hour work day is over, but this is difficult in a labor intensive industry."  American mega-corporations, which generate billions in profits, should be ablet to provide an acceptable work environment in their operations abroad.


The big picture

There is no doubt that the abuse of foreign workers, like human trafficking, is an international problem that is hard to control and that takes place in both First and Third World countries.  "Labor trafficking is not an international phenomenon.  It takes place in countries other than Jordan through under-the-counter deals that the world, particularly the U.S., should stand up to and address," Mr. Fakhoury told Jordan Business.


The QIZ scandal, however, hits a sensitive cord because it could jeopardize Jordan's FTA with the U.S. and adversely affect agreements with other countries.  Both the government and private sector quickly started cleaning up the mess.

Taking the NLC report's recommendations into consideration, the MoL temporarily froze the entry of new guest workers into Jordan "until factories are brought into full compliance with Jordanian laws and International Labor Organization (ILO) standards."  But the industry is worried that "clean" companies will pay the price for crimes that they did not commit.


The MoL developed a draft action plan for the effective management of labor migration and the protection of all migrant workers, not just those working in the QIZs.

The ministry took a number of other procedures, such as preparing "The Golden List" - a code of practice that includes both incentives and financial deterrents to ensure QIZ employers provide a better working environment for their employees.

Mr. Fakhoury of JGATE has called for two emergency meetings for the association members since the publishing of the report, where he warned that the organization will not accept any breach of worker's rights by any of its members.  He told Jordan Business that JGATE members endorsed a plan to unify all foreign worker contracts in terms of conditions that are in accordance with international labor rights and are acceptable for all stakeholders.

Regulating the growing foreign labor market has always been problematic for Jordan, and will remain a major challenge.  According to official figures, there are about 300,000 migrant workers in Jordan, of whom 60,000 are domestic workers.  Some estimates put the figure as high as one million, which includes illegal workers.

The government realizes that the end goal for Jordan, a country suffering from high unemployment and rising costs of living, is to increase the number of Jordanians working in the garment and other labor-intensive sectors.  But as long as difficult working conditions persist, Jordanians will be reluctant to take on jobs long filled by migrant workers.  For now, it is hoped that the QIZ scandal will force the government and the private sector to improve the lives of foreign workers on the ground.

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