Copyrighted material


by Emad Mekay

to sweatshop coverage

(IPS) WASHINGTON - Major U.S. companies, including Wal-Mart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, Kohl's, Victoria's Secret and L.L. Bean, are buying apparel from sweatshops in Jordan under a three-way trade deal that binds the Arab nation to Israel and the United States, according to a new report.

The report by the New York-based National Labor Committee says that the U.S-Jordan Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has descended into human trafficking and "involuntary servitude."

Part of the FTA, the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs) program, launched by Washington in 1998 as an economic dividend for Jordan's peace agreement with Israel, gives products from the zones duty- and quota-free access to the U.S. market as long as the Arab nation sources at least 8 percent of their content from an Israeli manufacturer.

Both the United States and Israel are seeking to replicate this model in numerous trade deals with other countries in the Arab world, under President Bush's plan for a Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA), which would tie all 22 Arab states with the U.S. and Israel in a trade deal by 2013.

Several U.S. congressional leaders have insisted that this model be applied if other Arab countries hope to sign an agreement with Washington.

Already, the government of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has signed on to the QIZ model in a 2004 agreement that creates such zones in and around the cities of Cairo and Alexandria and the Suez Canal.

The trade agreement with Jordan has fattened the coffers of local industry. Jordan's apparel exports that enter the U.S. duty-free went up 2,000 percent between 2000 and 2005, reaching $1.1 billion.

The new report, whose authors chose to focus on conditions of foreign workers, known as "guest workers," says the boom to the industry came at a hefty human cost and goes on to enumerate examples of abuse to workers and squalid working conditions.

The 168-report says that most of the guest workers in the zones come from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, India and other countries, and have communication problems since they do not speak Arabic, the local language.

The report also details a climate of low wages, physical abuse, including rape, and near imprisonment for workers.

"The gated industrial parks are in a state of what can only be described as a constant lock-down," it says.

It says that at the Al Shahaed factory, which produces for the largest U.S. retailer, Wal-Mart, there were 24-, 38- and even 72-hour shifts. The workers were paid an average wage of 2 cents an hour and many of them were slapped, kicked, punched and hit with sticks and belts.

In a factory called Al Safa, where workers sew garments for Gloria Vanderbilt, Target and Kohl's, a 20-year-old Bengali woman hanged herself after being raped by a manager, according to the report.

In the same factory, 10 to 12 people are often crammed into a room measuring 10 by 15 feet, sleeping on the floor, with no tables or chairs, the report says.

It found that despite these squalid conditions, U.S. retailers were still playing major roles in the Jordanian apparel industry under the U.S.-Israel trade deal. In a single month, for example, Wal-Mart imports $3.4 million worth of Athletic Works garments made in Jordan.

"Behind Wal-Mart's bargains are cheap goods made by thousands of workers being held under conditions of indentured servitude, forced to work 100 hours a week while being cheated of at least half of the wages legally due them," says the report.

"The use of slave labor in Jordan is complimented by cheap fabric from China. This is Wal-Mart's low-price secret."

Beth Keck, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart, told IPS that her company is looking into the allegations and that if their suppliers were proven to be part of such practices, Wal-Mart would be prepared to sever business relations with them.

"Whenever we learn of issues involving our suppliers, we are proactive and we are working with the suppliers to see progress made," she said.

Media officials from Target and Kohl's contacted by IPS were not immediately available for comment.

Jordan, a small country of 5.7 million people ruled by the U.S.-backed Hashemite family, became a member of the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO) in April 2000.

Like many other developing states, before joining the WTO, the country had to pass laws to strengthen the protection of intellectual property rights and trademarks, a key demand by the United States and European Union, which are seeking to maximize profits for domestic corporations.

Jordan, however, did not have to demonstrate greater worker rights protections or on-the-ground commitment to improve labor conditions.

Nongovernmental groups have long complained that free trade deals under the WTO or in bilateral agreements have tended to damage the environment, labor rights and local social conditions while boosting incomes for corporations and their local partners.

If replicated under similar trade deals, this model could further destabilize the Middle East, where the region's young populations are sizzling with anger and frustration over U.S. backing of dictators and ruling oligarchs.

The U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement went into effect in December 2001, making Jordan the fourth country to have a free trade agreement with the U.S.

Apart from Jordan in the Middle East, according to the U.S. Trade Representative's website, Washington now has similar deals with Israel and Morocco. An agreement with the small but wealthy state of Bahrain enters into force this year, while a deal with Oman was concluded in September. An agreement with the United Arab Emirates is currently being negotiated.

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Albion Monitor   May 5, 2006   (

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