- Brutal work shifts of 15 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, often with forced overtime without pay;
- Workers being beaten with belts and broom sticks for demanding better food and back pay;
- Workers being slapped, punched and kicked for falling asleep from exhaustion during work;
- Workers being paid $2.31 for a 98 hour work week, that’s barely 2 cents an hour;
- 20 to 28 workers forced to share each small dormitory bedroom;
- Water provided for bathing only once per week;
- Small portions of poor quality food consisting of bread, potatoes, vegetables and cabbage;
- Bathroom breaks limited to three per 16-hour work shift and bathrooms lack toilet paper, soap and towels;
- Women workers being sexually abused by guards;
- No medical benefits or medical care;
- Unventilated factories with temperatures routinely more than 100 F in the summer months;
- Passports confiscated and workers denied freedom of movement;
Where and when could these horrific abuses have taken place? Soviet Gulag forced labor camps in the 1950’s? Labor prisons in Laos in the 1960’s? The worst of NYC sweatshops in the early 1900’s? The answer: garment manufacturing companies in Jordan today. Now. As you are reading this.
The New York Times published a very disturbing article about the cancerous growth of sweatshops in Jordan since that country was granted favorable trading status with the U.S. and a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on October 24, 2000. The New York Times article was based on a report from the National Labor Council titled “U.S. Jordan Free Trade Agreement Descends into Human Trafficking & Involuntary Servitude.” You can view the New York Times article here and the full National Labor Council report here.
Based on surreptitious interviews with more than one hundred workers, the report released by the New York-based National Labor Committee (NLC) provides evidence that tens of thousands of guest workers, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and China, are being held in involuntary servitude in Jordan working in garment factories manufacturing apparel for American clothing retailers Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Mossimo, Kohl’s, GAP, JC Penney, Target, Liz Claiborne, Faded Glory, Perry Ellis, New York Laundry, L.L. Bean, ZeroXposure, Chestnut Hill, Bill Blass, Woolrich, Thalia Sodi, and Victoria’s Secret. Several of these American retailers such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart are not new to this Hall of Shame.
The Jordan Free Trade Agreement was only the third FTA that the U.S. has granted and the first with an Arab state. The Jordan FTA eliminates all tariff and non-tariff barriers to bilateral trade across all industrial goods and agricultural products. The Jordan FTA contains provisions rigorously protecting intellectual property rights, copyrights and trademarks. The Jordan FTA also has provisions that each country is to uphold fair labor practices and internationally recognized labor rights and standards as defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Unfortunately, there were no provisions for monitoring that fair labor practices were being enforced. Everyone was on the honor code.
Presently, the U.S. has signed Free Trade Agreements with Australia, Bahrain, Chile, Israel, Morocco, Panama, Singapore, and the five countries of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU – Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland.
Given as a reward for Jordan’s 1994 peace accord with Israel, the Jordan FTA flashed the green light to Jordan apparel manufacturers who were eager to sell to the giant U.S. apparel retailers. U.S. clothing retailers were delighted to find a cheap and willing source for inexpensive garments. Greed fueled greed and the lack of oversight or controls quickly allowed the worst corporate behavior to flourish in the garment industry which has historically been the worst and most consistent offender of labor standards and sweatshop practices.
The target of Jordan’s labor abuses are the more than 125,000 guest workers in Jordan from Bangladesh, India, China, Sri Lanka and an assortment of other developing countries. The garment manufacturers in Jordan are major employers of guest workers. The guest worker program in Jordan is a sordid story of deceit, greed, abuse, and lies. Poor, uneducated and unemployed labors in Bangladesh generally have to borrow between US $1,327 and $2,950 from local loan companies at usury rates to buy a 3 to 5-year work contract to work at a garment factory in the free trade zone in Jordan. The workers are generally promised that they will be earning at least US $120 per month plus overtime pay and free food, lodging and health care.
When they arrive in Jordan, their employers strip them of their passports so they can not leave or travel within Jordan and then confine them under conditions of involuntary servitude. All items in their work contract such as pay, hours and benefits are ignored. “Involuntary servitude” is defined by the U.S. State Department as:
“People become trapped in involuntary servitude when they believe an attempted escape from their conditions would result in serious physical harm or the use of legal coercion, such as the threat of deportation. Victims are often economic migrants and low-skilled laborers who are trafficked from less developed communities to more prosperous and developed places. Many victims experience physical and verbal abuse, breach of an employment contract, and may perceive themselves to be in captivity – and all to often they are.”
At this point, these poor workers are caught in a terrible dilemma: if they speak out to their employers about their conditions, they are often beaten; if they are able to contact Jordanian government labor officials, they are ignored; if they attempt to runaway, the Jordan police track them down, arrest them and put them in prison; and if they are especially troublesome to their employers, they are generally beaten and threatened with deportation.
Deportation back to their home countries, if you can imagine, presents an even worse scenario than remaining under their intolerable work conditions. When the garment workers are deported, they receive none of their back pay and they return to their home country worse than penniless because they still have to repay the loans – interest plus principle – that they borrowed to purchase the work contract. Given the very low wages in Bangladesh of typically around 21 cents per hour, repaying the loans which often charge between 10% and 20% per month, the garment worker and family quickly sink into an ever-growing pit of debt and despair. The only hope for the workers is that sometime will change, that they will be paid the back wages that they are owed, and that the garment manufacturers will live up to the worker’s labor contract.
The scale of the sweatshop abuse found among Jordan apparel manufacturers in the free trade Qualifying Industrial Zone (QIZ) is staggering. In 2004, there were an estimated 48,000 workers in Jordan free trade zone factories, of which at least 25,000 were foreign guest workers. And this does not include the many foreign guest workers hidden away in numerous subcontract factories. These hidden workers are lost in the system. There are more than 100 garment factories in the free trade Qualifying Industrial Zone and the National Labor Committee documented substandard sweatshop conditions in more than 25 of the garment factories.
Many of these sweatshop garment factories product clothing for more than one U.S. clothing retailer and most U.S. clothing retailers use more than one Jordan garment factory. For example, Wal-Mart has contracted with at least 11 documented substandard and abusive garment manufacturers in Jordan. For a pair of jeans manufactured at these factories, the factory owners typically pay 16 to 20 cents in labor costs to sew a pair of Wal-Mart jeans.
In recent weeks, Wal-Mart has made a splashy, feely-good PR blitz about their green and sustainable business intentions, but fair trade and ethical labor practices are a major component of a truly sustainable business. Wal-Mart has become a major player in the Jordan garment industry. Wal-Mart has dozens of garment labels manufactured each month in Jordan and for just one of those labels, Athletic Works brand apparel, Wal-Mart imports about $3.4 million dollars from Jordan. Because of the free trade agreement, these garments are imported duty free. Wal-Mart’s motto “Everyday Low Prices” refers not just to their clothing prices in thousands of Wal-Mart stores that litter America, but also to the wages paid to garment workers living under involuntary servitude in Jordan and other countries.
Most large corporations have adopted Corporate Social Responsibility policies that require them to monitor labor conditions, among other social and environmental parameters, at companies that they outsource to. Typically, these large U.S. retailers send a team to visit the manufacturing companies and monitor labor conditions. These monitoring practices have proven to be ineffective and easy to deceive. The factory managers intimidate workers and give them carefully crafted scripts to tell monitors if the workers are interviewed. The interviews occur in the factory and the workers are terrified of the repercussions if they tell the truth. The factory managers are informed when the monitors will arrive, labor records are hidden or falsified, and factory workers are often forced to clean the restrooms and factory floors to give the right impressions. Of course, all the horrors return after the monitoring team departs. Even when conditions are so egregious that the monitor team actually finds problems, the factory owners have 120 days to apply cosmetic patches to the problems. Only rarely does a U.S. retailer eventually terminate a contract with a substandard factory.
The government of Jordan has also been ineffective at combating labor abuses. The Jordan Ministry of Labor has refused to investigate any reports of guest worker labor abuses. And the final insult is that in 2004 the Jordan government raked in $38.9 million in fees for each foreign guest worker and for each visa renewal.
Jordan has been a supporter of the U.S. Administration's erstwhile policies in the Middle East and the U.S. Government appears to have little interest in confronting Jordan about the labor abuses of their guest workers in violation of the Jordan Free Trade Agreement. This isn’t terribly surprising as the U.S. Government has shown little enough interest in the labor abuses of guest workers and undocumented workers in America. Speaking of American workers, the National Labor Committee reports that between 2000 and 2005, Jordan’s duty free apparel exports to the U.S. soared more than 2,000% and increased from $52.1 million in 2000 to $1.1 billion in 2005. In this same time period, more than 388,000 textile and apparel manufacturing jobs have been lost in the U.S.
Oddly enough, the main financial beneficiaries of the Jordan Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. haven’t been Jordan’s factory owners but China. To illustrate, the total production cost for a girl’s shirt sewn in Jordan averages out to be about $3.50. Of this, Israeli companies receive 32 cents or 9% of the total production costs. A provision in the Jordan Free Trade Agreement requires that Israeli companies participate in all manufacturing activities governed by the Free Trade Agreement. The direct and indirect labor and processing costs for the garment manufacturing companies total 68 cents or 19% of the garment’s production value. China, though, supplies the bulk of the fabric and accessories such as buttons and zippers which account for $2.20 or 63% of the garment cost. This means that Chinese textile plants received more than $102.3 million in U.S. tariff breaks last year by supplying fabrics and accessories to tariff-free garment production in Jordan..
What can we do? Shop
ethically. Boycott any clothing
store that retails clothing manufactured in Jordan
and let the store know why. Support
organizations working to expose and eliminate sweatshop conditions and practices
wherever they occur. This is another reason to shop for organic clothing from retailers that you can trust.
Stay informed, stay tuned, shop ethically.
Purely Beautiful & Healthy Clothing