WASHINGTON — Jordan's Minister of Trade and Industry, Sharif Ali Zu'bi, said his government is taking steps to curb labor abuses in the country's apparel industry. But labor activists here, while applauding some improvements, said more needs to be done.
Zu'bi made the rounds here last week, with meetings on Capitol Hill and with the U.S. Trade Representative's office, to assuage concerns surrounding allegations of human trafficking and involuntary servitude that were made in a National Labor Committee report last month.
"Our labor regulations are pretty much up to par with international best practices, with [International Labor Organization] standards, however our verification and inspection regimes may have failed us and, in some cases, may have failed us miserably," Zu'bi said in a meeting with reporters.
The National Labor Committee report alleged abuses that included the beating and rape of workers, confiscation of passports by factory owners, unpaid wages, work weeks in excess of 100 hours and 20-hour shifts.
Jordan gets preferential access to the U.S. market through a free trade agreement, as well as a system of Qualified Industrial Zones, where companies manufacture and ship goods under an Israel-U.S. trade pact.
The zones, which were the focus of the report, employ some 60,000 people, about 60 percent of whom are from other countries, such as Bangladesh and China.
Jordan makes up 0.5 percent of the total U.S. apparel and textile import market, having shipped goods valued at $1.1 billion for 12 months ended April 30.
"I have met with all 114 companies that operate in the QIZs [Qualified Industrial Zones] and the message is very clear to all of them: We want trade, we want investment, but not at any price, not at any cost," Zu'bi said.
Since the report was released, Jordan has closed three factories with the most egregious labor violations, put the rest of the industry on notice by declaring zero tolerance for abuses and begun to develop an improved factory inspection system. Jordan has a limited number of inspectors to monitor labor conditions.
Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, said Jordan has made some progress, citing the return of passports to workers in the Al Tajamouat Qualified Industrial Zone."This is a good step, this is a major step," said Kernaghan. "This is evidence that the message got across loud and clear that the human trafficking must cease immediately."
Still, he said, the country's progress has been mixed, with a need for more of the words to be turned into deeds.
"When it comes to restoring respect for workers' rights or reestablishing the rule of law in Jordan's factories, they're moving very slowly and I can't see many concrete steps," said Kernaghan. "Jordan has a plan to improve conditions, but the plan is not concrete and it's not been put into motion yet. It's literally still just words and that's why there are continuing violations in the factories."
Daryl Brown, Liz Claiborne Inc.'s vice president of business ethics and compliance, said facilities in Jordan are considered "high risk" for abuses because they use migrant workers.
Accordingly, the company checks into the factories more frequently than at its other facilities and conducts more worker interviews, she said. The company also has training sessions for factory management to avoid future problems.
Claiborne uses five factories in Jordan and in the past found problems with hours and wages, health and safety and harassment.
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