Jordan Accused of Harboring Sweatshop Factories

An American labor group has investigated conditions in Jordanian garment factories and says that foreign workers are being enslaved in sweatshops. Under a free-trade agreement with the U.S., the factories are producing items for Target, L.L. Bean and other major American retailers.

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Legislation introduced this month in the U.S. Senate would make it illegal to import goods produced in sweatshops. That legislation could have implications for a key American ally: Jordan. A recent report by the New York-based National Labor Committee claims that foreign workers in Jordan are forced to work nearly around the clock for pennies.

One hundred ten factories there produce duty-free and quota-free clothing for the U.S. market. The report charges that labels such as Wal-Mart, Target, Gloria Vanderbilt, LL Bean and many others gain from what amounts to slave labor. Kristen Gillespie reports.

KRISTEN GILLESPIE reporting:

(Soundbite of steam whistle)

GILLESPIE: It's two in the afternoon and at least one row of workers assembling a pair of navy blue pants for Dress Barn is falling behind schedule. A sign in Chinese overhead notes that the workers have completed 152 pairs of pants. The target for the day is 600 pairs. To meet their production goal, these workers would have to stay at the factory until morning.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GILLESPIE: The Jordan Dragon garment factory, about 40 minutes east of the capital, Amman, is one of 28 Jordanian factories cited in a recent report by the National Labor Committee, an American worker advocacy group.

After touring the factories, an NLC delegation complained of conditions that are tantamount to human slavery.

Mr. TIM WATERS (Director of Rapid Response, United Steelworkers of America) Right now we're in a clothing factory with, what I'm just guessing looking out on this one floor, hundreds and hundreds of sewing machines, and people sitting at benches with no backs on them, just bent over, sewing clothes for the U.S. market.

GILLESPIE: That's Tim Waters, one member of the American team. He says it was difficult to get the workers to talk about their jobs during the factory tour.

Mr. WATERS: The workers are very intimidated. As soon as you walk by, they put their heads down and they're obviously intimidated with their boss standing over them. They're afraid to say anything, so...

GILLESPIE: The factory smells of fresh paint and cleaning agents, but electric wires dangle loosely from the ceiling. There are rows of harsh neon lights overhead and little or no ventilation. Here, the term sweatshop is more than just an expression.

Even on a mild spring day, you can feel the temperature of the room rise as you approach the center of the factory. After about 20 minutes, the stagnant heat blended with fabric dust and other chemicals gets uncomfortable, yet not a single worker throughout the day is seen drinking water, and only a handful wear protective masks.

There are some 36,000 foreign workers in Jordan. They mostly come from China, Bangladesh and other Asian countries. They work here in industrial zones spread out across remote parts of the country. They live in crowded dormitories where up to two dozen workers are crammed into a 20- by 10-foot space.

The NLC tour of factories and dormitories yielded little information from the workers, so the group set up a clandestine night meeting. Fifty-eight Bangladeshi workers showed up, some of the same people who watched the American group pass through their factories earlier in the day. Interviewed separately, the workers said they'd been coached before the NLC's arrival in Jordan.

Unidentified Man # 1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, they were - they taught them all the answers and they knew that we were coming and we were going to ask them questions like about their wages and stuff.

GILLESPIE: All the workers complained of their treatment on the job. Here, one worker describes what he says happened after he went for months without being paid.

Unidentified Man # 2: (Through translator) Twenty-five people went up to the owner and asked for their wages, and they got threatened with guns, and a few people got hit, and they were threatened about being sent back too.

GILLESPIE: The minimum wage in Jordan is $135 U.S. dollars a month, but few workers say they receive that, even though they're compelled to sign pay stubs indicating they were fairly paid. They say their work schedule is dictated by ever-increasing production goals, like those 600 pairs of pants at the Jordan Dragon factory. Some say they're becoming mentally disoriented from starting early and working late into the night, seven days a week, with only a few days off a month.

The workers say they're trapped in a cycle of debt and have nowhere to turn in Jordan. With their passports confiscated by their employers and wages held at will, they feel they have no choice but to keep working to pay off the extensive loans they took to pay a recruiter to find their factory jobs.

Mr. CHARLES KERNAGHAN (Director, National Labor Committee): Do they feel like they're free people, or do they feel like they're enslaved?

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man # 3: No.

Unidentified Woman: They don't feel free.

Mr. KERNAGHAN: Do they feel like slaves?

GILLESPIE: Charles Kernaghan is the head of the National Labor Committee. He says that what's happening in Jordan amounts to human trafficking.

Mr. KERNAGHAN: I looked up the State Department definition of human trafficking and involuntary servitude and everything that the guest workers here are enduring matched those definitions 100 percent.

GILLESPIE: The State Department's special ambassador for human trafficking, John Miller, seems to agree.

Ambassador JOHN MILLER (Special Ambassador, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State): We're talking about taking passports away from people. We're talking about deceiving them with phony job offers. We're talking about confining them, taking away their freedom. We're talking about beatings. The practices that are alleged, if they are true - and nobody's denied them - if they are true, this constitutes slavery. Those practices have to end and the people that carried out those practices should be prosecuted.

GILLESPIE: Jordan's Labor Minister, Bassem Salem, acknowledges there are problems in the country's nascent garment industry. He says the government has formed a committee to investigate the issue.

Mr. BASSEM SALEM (Minister of Labor, Jordan): This industry has grown very considerably in a very short time, so we realize that during that period maybe some misdoings was taking place, and we wanted to correct that.

GILLESPIE: But Jordanian officials and businessmen like this factory owner, who didn't want to give his name, say the multinational corporations that import the Jordan-made clothing are part of the problem.

Unidentified Man # 4: They are demanding us to beat the lowest price, because they want to maintain everyday low prices. We are not in business to be the lowest price; we are in business to sustain business.

GILLESPIE: Charles Kernaghan says that, ultimately, it's the workers who pay the price.

Mr. KERNAGHAN: They've been abandoned. They're like garbage in the global economy for these companies. So they can traffic in them, thousands of miles, and drop them into Jordan and beat them and cheat them of their wages and everything and this just goes on; this is the normal course of activity. And, of course, this is going on all over the world, not just Jordan.

For NPR News, I'm Kristen Gillespie in Amman, Jordan.

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