WASHINGTON — Jordan’s labor minister, seeking to reassure U.S. apparel buyers and the public that his government has taken steps to eradicate violations in the garment industry, outlined a five-year monitoring program Thursday intended to eliminate abusive factories.

Bassem Al-Salem told reporters that his government signed an agreement with representatives from the International Labor Organization and International Finance Corporation in Oman on Sunday, paving the way for the launch of a voluntary apparel monitoring/inspection program in May.

U.S. and Jordanian authorities cast an intense focus on apparel factories that manufacture for U.S. companies, including Gap Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Jones Apparel Group Inc., after a May 2006 investigation by the National Labor Committee revealed working conditions that did not meet the country’s labor standards.

Apparel imports from Jordan have fallen by 12 percent to 255.9 million square meter equivalents and declined 5 percent by value to $1.17 billion, in the 12 months ending Nov. 30, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Al-Salem, who met with representatives from U.S. brands and retail buyers at the Jones offices in New York on Wednesday to discuss the monitoring program, said, “We are seeing a very good commitment from buyers. They want to buy from Jordan and they feel the situation now in Jordan is in very good shape.”

But he acknowledged that “the road to reform is not very smooth,” and that “when it came to labor management, we believe we lagged behind a little bit.”

The U.S. has been involved because goods made in Jordan can be shipped here duty free under a free trade agreement with the Middle East country and a second arrangement under a U.S.-Israeli trade pact. Al-Salem said the voluntary monitoring program should help alleviate remaining labor problems in three Qualified Industrial Zones where 98 apparel factories employ 54,000 workers.

“A lot of people seem to be trying to get this thing straight, but in a country where you don’t have a vibrant civil society and unions are not dealing with workers, and workers have virtually no voice, it is going to be problematic,” said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the NLC.

This story first appeared in the February 8, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The program will receive $2.7 million in funding from the U.S., $1.05 million from the Jordanian government and about $500,000 to $600,000 in fees over five years from participating factories.

Lejo Sibbel, an adviser to the labor minister, said the effort will initially have 25 to 30 participating factories, “partly because the brands for which they produce have indicated they will not source from them unless they join the program.”

As part of the government’s effort to train more Jordanians to work in apparel factories in the industrialized zones — about 33,000 to 34,000 guest workers are employed — six of 40 companies on the “Golden List” that are in compliance with international labor standards have opened satellite factories in areas of high unemployment, Al-Salem said.

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