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"Free Trade" Adds to Middle East Woes PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Sunday, 10 December 2006 07:42
"Free Trade" Adds to Middle East Woes

The Nation
- Kristen Gillespie - In the most remote desert areas of the Kingdom of Jordan, a hidden army of tens of thousands of imported workers toils night and day in more than 100 factories in a recently established free-trade zone, putting together T-shirts, fleeces and pants destined for Wal-Mart, Target and L.L. Bean, among other stores. The factory conditions are reminiscent of the nineteenth century's early industrial age: The hangar-like buildings have poor ventilation, and the workers sit on backless benches in long rows, performing the same tasks over and over, thousands of times a day.


The Jordan-United States free-trade agreement was supposed to be a labor-rights model. It has been a disaster -- 'globalization' at its worst. Workers from Bangladesh, China, India and elsewhere are producing apparel under nineteenth century living conditions in Jordan, making items bound for American superstores such as Wal-Mart, Target and L.L. Bean.

Free-Trade Bondage in Jordan

Kristen Gillespie

The Nation
December 9, 2006

Copyright ? 2006 Kristen Gillespie - The Nation
[Republished at PEJ News with Agence Global permission] 

Amman - The workers, mostly from Bangladesh, China, India and Sri Lanka, are barred by Jordanian law from joining unions. In most cases, their passports are confiscated at the airport when they arrive. Only a handful are given valid work permits, but without one they can be arrested and jailed. That's why employees rarely leave the guarded compounds where they live and work. Bangladeshi employees I interviewed secretly at night outside their compound spoke of unpaid overtime, wages withheld for months, filthy living conditions, inadequate food and mental and physical exhaustion from the long hours.

Yet none of the nearly seventy workers interviewed wanted to leave Jordan, because they are in debt. A worker in Bangladesh often borrows up to $3,000 from family, home village or bank to buy a work contract. The recruitment agency takes a cut and the banks charge around 5 percent interest a month, so the worker becomes an indentured servant. Overwhelming debt, a language barrier, almost no legal oversight in Jordan, and fear of leaving the compound and being arrested are among the factors preventing workers from protesting conditions. Plus, they're busy: They are required to make a certain number of garments every day, and the piece rate is set so high that they work late into the night. These faceless migrants represent "the garbage of the global economy" to multinational corporations, said Charles Kernaghan, head of the New York City-based National Labor Committee, whose devastating May report exposed the slavelike conditions in Jordan.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Jordan-U.S. free-trade agreement (FTA) entered into force in 2001 to stimulate business in a country where the annual per capita income hovers at around $2,400. Unemployment is officially estimated at 14 percent, and unofficially at 30 percent. Jordan was the fourth country -- and the first Arab country -- to gain duty-free access to the U.S. market, one of the rewards for signing a peace treaty with Israel. The Clinton Administration negotiated the terms of the agreement, and according to Thea Lee, policy director at the AFL-CIO, the Administration approached the U.S. labor movement to incorporate workers' rights language into the text. For the first time, Lee said, "We were offered a seat at the table."

The terms weren't ideal, but Jordan did commit to respecting International Labor Organization standards, which allow for collective bargaining and the right to strike, with the possibility of trade sanctions in the event of gross violations. The U.S. labor movement believed these legal protections would serve as a model for future agreements. "We finally had a trade agreement that we could hold up and say, 'We can protect workers, and economies aren't collapsing,'" said Tim Waters, rapid response director of the United Steelworkers.

But the FTA wasn't implemented as intended. The text of the agreement refers to "raising living standards," but the Jordanian workforce spurned the new industry, partly because of cultural taboos regarding the shame of menial labor and women working outside the home, and partly because the minimum wage is unacceptably low. As many as 60 percent of the workers are non-Jordanian. And some 90 percent of the apparel factories are non-Jordanian-owned, with the profits going straight out of the country. Fewer Jordanian employees means a more docile workforce for the multinational apparel companies, which, under the terms of the FTA, are already exempt from tariffs and quotas, saving them 15 percent up front. Garment exports from Jordan to the United States totaled $1.1 billion last year.

Five years after lobbying for the Jordan FTA, the labor movement is retrenching. In September the AFL-CIO filed a complaint under the labor chapter of the agreement to pressure Jordan to reform its laws and comply with ILO obligations. The Jordanian government has made some cosmetic improvements, but it still hasn't amended its labor law and granted foreign workers the right to organize and be paid the promised wages. The harsh reality is that many are still trapped in factories and are beaten, threatened and worked past the point of exhaustion.

Meanwhile, the Jordan FTA has been shunted aside as a regional model in favor of the Oman FTA, which Congress passed in July. The Oman agreement has a workers' rights component, but it's far weaker than Jordan's. In the event of labor infractions, the Omani government is required to pay a fine of up to $15 million, using the money to improve working conditions. But there's no enforcement mechanism, just a promise on paper. In a country of 3 million, 80 percent of Oman's private-sector workforce is already imported. These migrants are not permitted to join unions, and they have scant legal recourse in the event of abuses.

Waters thinks that with the new Democratic Congress, countries like Jordan will no longer be able to get away with minimal oversight of their factories. "The government of Jordan shouldn't think we've forgotten about this issue, because we haven't," he said. "Nothing short of amending the labor law to allow workers to organize and bargain collectively will fix this situation. There ought to be a lot of nervous people in Amman right about now." American labor advocates point to the November election, in which twenty-nine House and seven Senate seats switched from an unchecked free-trade agenda to a fair-trade one, as a sign that they'll soon get their seat back at the negotiating table. And with that, said Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, expect to see new Democratic proposals "on how to do free trade right." Until the laws are reformed, we will, as Kernaghan said, "live in a society where the label is protected, the logo is protected and the corporate product is protected, but not the human being who made it."

Kristen Gillespie
is a reporter based in Amman, Jordan.

Copyright ? 2006 Kristen Gillespie - The Nation


Released: 09 December 2006
Word Count: 1,043



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Last Updated on Sunday, 10 December 2006 07:42

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