WASHINGTON — House Democratic leaders are urging the Bush administration to investigate allegations of labor abuses in textile and apparel factories in Jordan that are used by many U.S. companies.
Citing a report by the National Labor Committee, four House Ways and Means committee members wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman Wednesday outlining their concerns about sweatshops in Jordan, which exported $1.1 billion in apparel and textiles to the U.S. last year.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.) said he would introduce legislation as early as next week that would prohibit the import or sale of goods made under conditions that violate core International Labor Organization worker rights standards.
The House Democrats called on the administration to investigate labor conditions in Jordan as well as Jordan’s compliance with international labor guidelines. They also pressed for consultations with Jordanian officials to ensure the safety of workers from China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal working in the apparel factories there and protection for those who participated in the NLC report from retaliation by their employers.
The nonprofit labor advocacy group’s report alleges confiscation of passports by apparel factory owners, involuntary servitude, instances where workers were forced to work 109 hours a week and 20-hour shifts, work without pay for six months, beatings and rapes.
“We take allegations of violations of labor rights by our free trade partners seriously,” a Portman spokesman said. “We have raised the issue with officials in the [government of Jordan] and we will take other appropriate steps as the circumstances require.”
Yanal Beasha, the Jordanian trade representative in Washington, said the report and its recommendations, first disclosed by The New York Times, would be evaluated by the government and trade associations and that any abuses would be addressed.
“The action might range from closing these factories or temporarily taking out their export license until they prove that they have worked their problems out, or enforcing a whole new monitoring system to ensure our labor laws are in full enforcement,” Beasha said.
There are 102 apparel and textile factories in Jordan employing about 55,000 people, more than half of whom are in the country as guest workers. Beasha said the government this week approved an increase in the minimum wage to $154 a month, up from $133.
Companies cited in the report, such as Kohl’s, Gloria Vanderbilt, Kmart and Victoria’s Secret, did not return calls regarding the allegations.
Wal-Mart has sourced apparel production with contractors in Jordan since 2002 and uses five contractors. “The abuses this report apparently alleges are total violations of our standards,” said Bill Wertz, Wal-Mart director of international corporate affairs.
Wal-Mart has sent two company officials to Jordan to look into the allegations, Wertz said. The company has no affiliation and does not have contracts with two apparel contractors cited as making clothes for Wal-Mart, including the Western Factory, where four women were allegedly raped, and Al Shahaed, where workers were allegedly forced to work excessive hours and were beaten with sticks and belts.
Wal-Mart stopped doing business with one of three factories in Jordan, Ivory Garment Factory, two years ago after the company’s inspectors found labor violations, Wertz said.
“We have not ceased doing business with the other two factories because we are attempting to use our leverage to obtain improvement of working conditions,” Wertz said. “We have become less quick to cut factories off because of input from the NGO [non-governmental organizations associated with the United Nations] community and others that this is not necessarily in the best interest of the workers.”
In a written statement, Target said, “To our knowledge the only factory mentioned by The New York Times that has a relationship with a Target vendor is Al Safa Garments. We will ask the vendor to investigate conditions at this factory to ensure compliance.”
The company said it takes “very seriously the protection of human rights,” and is committed to taking corrective action.