By  on October 10, 2006

Free trade agreements are touted for boosting commerce and nascent apparel industries, but reports of worker abuses in Jordanian factories show they can also lead to exploitation and expose lax labor standards.

Apparel and textile exports from Jordan to the U.S. shot up to more than $1 billion last year from almost zero in 2000, when the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement was signed. However, Jordanian officials said the boom contributed to an environment that spurred sweatshop-like conditions.

The Washington-based National Labor Committee, which investigates human and labor rights violations, in May alleged there were abuses such as involuntary servitude, confiscation of passports and 20-hour work shifts. Jordanian officials acknowledged lapses in monitoring factories and have taken corrective steps. Conditions have improved at about 80 percent of Jordan's apparel factories since the report, said Charles Kernaghan, director of the NLC.

"Workers have gotten their passports back, they're working the legal eight-hour regular workday and getting paid the legal minimum wage, and many of them have their residency permits," he said. "But there are these whole pockets, or it could be even as many as 20 percent of the factories, where conditions haven't improved, where human trafficking continues."

An NLC report last week said workers continue to voice displeasure. Employees at Rainbow Textile in the Ad Dulayl Industrial Park in Zarka went on strike Sept. 27 to demand an end to physical beatings, 15-hour shifts without overtime and confiscation of passports.

The abuses that sparked controversy were found in Jordan's Qualified Industrial Zones, areas in which the country gets preferential access to the U.S. market under the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement. Some 60,000 people work in the zones. About 60 percent are from other countries, including China and Bangladesh.

During the last several months, Jordan shut five factories, relocated more than 1,000 workers from 14 facilities where there were labor law violations and added 100 inspectors, for a total of 180, said the Jordanian embassy in Washington.

"Why are we looking at the negative impact of the Jordan FTA [free trade agreement] and not looking at the positive outcome?" asked Ziad Khreisat, commercial representative at the embassy. "A lot of people in the U.S. are wearing Jordanian-made garments. The government is doing the utmost to rectify [the labor abuses]."

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