Jordanian Sweatshops

Jordan has appeared on a list of countries that produce goods by child labor or forced labor. The Labor Department has just released a report mandated by Congress titled The Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. If you look at the chart on page 13 you will see that Jordan is listed as a country producing garments with forced labor.  For more information you need to go to the bibliography at the end of the report.  The countries are listed alphabetically; Jordan is on p. 118.

The culprits, it seems, are the QIZ’s  (special economic zones)  that have proliferated in the last 5 years as the result of the U.S. giving Jordan special trade status with the U.S.  and the workers considered to be “forced labor” are not Jordanians, but guest workers from countries like Bangladesh.  This New York Times article is representative:

But some foreign workers in Jordanian factories that produce garments for Target, Wal-Mart and other American retailers are complaining of dismal conditions — of 20-hour days, of not being paid for months and of being hit by supervisors and jailed when they complain.

An advocacy group for workers contends that some apparel makers in Jordan, and some contractors that supply foreign workers to them, have engaged in human trafficking. Workers from Bangladesh said they paid $1,000 to $3,000 to work in Jordan, but when they arrived, their passports were confiscated, restricting their ability to leave and tying them to jobs that often pay far less than promised and far less than the country’s minimum wage.

“We used to start at 8 in the morning, and we’d work until midnight, 1 or 2 a.m., seven days a week,” said Nargis Akhter, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi who, in a phone interview from Bangladesh, said she worked last year for the Paramount Garment factory outside Amman. “When we were in Bangladesh they promised us we would receive $120 a month, but in the five months I was there I only got one month’s salary — and that was just $50.”

Why am I not surprised.  Jordan is not a wealthy country and its guest workers are the most vulnerable of anyone in the country.  A New York based advocacy group, the National Labor Committee, has documented abuses in Jordan. (Unfortunately their search function will only display the four most recent items, although those items do have more links.)

To complicate matters, a QIZ is one of the areas where foreign investment money can be used to set up factories. Rumor has had it for a long time that much of such investment capital comes from Israel.  One of the most egregious cases has come from Musa Garments in Irbid (owned by two Israelis) that makes Israeli labels such as Irit, Bonita,  Pashut, and Jump.

The lesson here is clear.  Special trade agreements are great, and I’m overjoyed to see the U.S. in a special relationship with Jordan.  But a small and hungry country like this isn’t going to be able to police their own ranks, much less control foreign nationals operating within their country.   Special U.S. trade relationships like this need to be tied to fair labor legislation.

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