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]."The FTA and the arrangement with Israel have helped cut unemployment in the country to about 14 percent from almost 30 percent in 1997, he said.

The National Textile Association and the AFL-CIO last month registered a complaint with the U.S. Trade Representative's office, charging that the improvements haven't come quickly enough and urging the Bush administration to initiate action under the Jordan FTA, which would start a process that could lead to sanctions.

"These violations are serious enough that our government should use the machinery of the free trade agreement to ensure that the Jordanian government in a timely fashion comes into compliance with its obligations," said Thea Lee, policy director at the AFL-CIO. "We filed the case to be a constructive step, not a combative step. I think the Jordanian government means well and we're certainly glad that they've been responsive. We welcome the steps they've taken, but to date, they aren't sufficient."

The textile association and the AFL-CIO also said Jordan's labor laws fail to meet the international standards required under the trade pact.

Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the nonprofit Institute for International Economics, a research group in Washington, said the labor abuses are the one "black mark" on the agreement, which has dramatically increased trade. Hufbauer said labor abuses would probably subside, but that it would require enforcement under terms of the Jordan Free Trade Agreement.

"I'm somewhat optimistic things will improve," he said. "I think the AFL-CIO's petition in this respect is probably a useful prod for the administration."

The Office of USTR Susan Schwab is reviewing the complaints.

"Dispute settlement under any agreement is a last resort," said Lewis Karesh, assistant USTR for labor. "We prefer to find a cooperative way to move forward."

When allegations of abuse arose, the Bush administration met almost immediately with the NLC and the Jordanian government. In August, Karesh and his counterparts at the State Department and the Department of Labor went to Jordan to evaluate the situation.

"The [NLC] report came out in May," Karesh said. "To say four months later that things haven't really changed is not really a fair assessment. In our view, the Jordanian government has taken quite a number of steps very quickly and has moved very rapidly to attempt to address the allegations….By having these mechanisms in the trade agreements, it provides us a means at many levels to raise the issues and to bring countries to the table so that we can find ways to address them."

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