The New York Times ran a very disturbing story today about the mistreatment of workers in Jordanian factories that were established as part of the Qualified Industrial Zones or QIZs. The article claims that these factories are essentially sweatshops. Here in an excerpt:
Propelled by a free trade agreement with the United States, apparel manufacturing is booming in Jordan, its exports to America soaring twenty-fold in the last five years. But some foreign workers in Jordanian factories that produce garments for Target, Wal-Mart and other American retailers are complaining of dismal conditions — of 20-hour days, of not being paid for months and of being hit by supervisors and jailed when they complain.
An advocacy group for workers contends that some apparel makers in Jordan, and some contractors that supply foreign workers to them, have engaged in human trafficking. Workers from Bangladesh said they paid $1,000 to $3,000 to work in Jordan, but when they arrived, their passports were confiscated, restricting their ability to leave and tying them to jobs that often pay far less than promised and far less than the country’s minimum wage. Source: [New York Times]
I have to admit that I was extremely disturbed by this report, as the situation in these factories looks very similar — if not worse — than the status Asian workers suffer under in Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. I have a feeling that this report will not go unnoticed since there are a number of Jordanian officials quoted in the article — including the Jordanian ambassador in DC, Karim Kawar. I hope these revelations will prompt the Jordanian government to intervene and end the alleged worker abuse once and for all. I also find it disappointing that we have to read about this in an American newspaper and not a Jordanian one. Where are the journalists in Jordan? Does anyone dare to write such a report?
Meanwhile, Jordanian blogger Khalaf reports that the minimum wage in Jordan has been increased in Jordan. However, workers at the QIZ factories have been excluded from this increase. He says:
Zuhair Kayed, head of the higher council for population, says that 733,000 people in Jordan are living on less than a dinar a day. So, the dilemma is whether low paying jobs in sweatshops are better than not offering any economic opportunities for the poor at all. The implication is that the factories can easily be relocated to other countries with cheaper labor. Given the alternative, I would grudgingly go for providing choice for people. Fahed Fanek suggests that the owners of the clothing factories are overplaying their hand, and that they can afford to raise the wages of their workers in the country. If his math is correct, I don’t see why the government went along with deferring raising of wages in these factories.
Here are some reactions from the Jordanian blogosphere: What’s up in Jordan, and Ajnabiyeh.
Did you know that most of the “foreign” companies operating in Jordan’s industrial zones are owned by Jordanians with double or triple citizenships? It’s about time Jordan’s Untouchables pay the price for causing so much harm to Jordan and its people.
I am proud of being Jordanian but I am disappointed at the failure of our “liberal” institutions and those who are in a position to make a difference. The Jordanian liberal intelligential has the biggest lips when it comes paying lip service to any humanitarian cause. But when it comes to doing anything, they and the rest of us, stand on the sidelines and throw our hands in the air.
Sometimes I think the liberal intelligentsia in the Arab world exists only to whitewash the failures of their government sugar-daddies or to protect themselves from the scrutiny and criticism of the West, leaving the Islamists to champion the poor and care for the needy. Until one day we wake up and there is another Islamist victory in every Arab country.
Let’s face it; the liberalism of the Arab elite seems to surface only when we are humiliated in public, not because we have a guilty conscience. We know about all the problems that pop up every now and then in the Western press. We are quick to distance ourselves with our empty condemnations from social, economic, and political inequities when the same elite are the ultimate beneficiaries of these inequities. The fact is, most members of the Arab neo-liberal intelligentsia got their education and perks as a result of the unfair distribution of wealth.
I doubt there will ever be a true liberal movement in the Arab world in the coming decades. All we have is a grotesque neo-liberal movement that blames the victims for the failure and corruption of the official institutions, where the former (the citizen) is always the problem and the latter (the regime and its institutions) is the enlightened victim whose brilliant vision for progress is dragged down by the backwardness of their citizens.
Shame on us for being so hypocritical.
Those of you familiar with Naomi Klein’s No Logo [this FAQ has some excellent ‘sweatshop’ tidbits] have doubtless recognized many of the key issues with Free Trade Zones and QIZs in Jordan. The US of A seems to be doling out these free trade zones all over the globe. So what do these zones and the Free Trade Agreements (FTA) do? Well, look at Jordan. While some of those inside these zones are Jordanian businesses, many are not. These “outside” businesses come to Jordan for cheap labor and to take advantage of the low/zero import duties to the almighty US market.
Does it benefit Jordan? Well, as Hamako remarked, that is a long debate. What you can see clearly and easily is that the awarding of free trade zones allows multinational corporations to go around the world and cherry pick little constituencies that have cheap labor for the production of their goods. In essence, the US opens the doors to cheap labor in some of these countries and puts a good spin on it with the “FTA” moniker — breaking down the resistance that was growing in areas where there was no US cover, like Bangladesh and the Philippines. So, these factories pump out the Land’s End, the Victoria’s Secret and the rest of it on the backs of people that — even with the increase in the minimum wage — still make less than $200 a month!
Just think of the connections here. The US wants to help business, so it opens FTA zones in areas where there is ample cheap labor plus these companies don’t have to pay any import duties, allowing them to have the best of both worlds: They don’t have to pay a living wage but they also don’t have to pay import duties for using developing world labor. It’s a pretty twisted system. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s more to this still.
While I know in a number of instances Jordan is working hard to improve some of these circumstances — through work programs that train and get more Jordanian labor involved — but the wages still suffer. And as the article illustrates, in the interim a little cottage industry has sprung up importing the world’s cheapest labor to fill the bill. I think the end plan from Jordan’s perspective is to get rid of the imported labor and only use domestic. Natasha wrote about this once before and I’d remarked about the social changes that might come of this, as young girls move into dormitories and become the family’s primary breadwinner.
The bottom line remains, whether it’s the poor, abused imported workers, or whether it’s the Jordanians that one day may replace the whole of them, the wages being paid are far from fair. And the blame does not rest solely on the shoulders of the multinational corporations that exploit this system. It’s also partly on those of us that purchase the products and continually press for cheaper prices and a continuing upward trend in corporations’ profits. As we press for more cheap goods and pack Wal-Marts, Targets and Carrefour’s buying those goods we are creating a huge press for cheap, exploited labor. It’s a vicious cycle.
I only hope to see Jordan slowly press out the imported labor, to integrate Jordanians into the ownership process and to slowly watch the unions do what they can — and do in many instances — and press for wages and benefits that jibe with the cost of living in the kingdom. Natasha posted recently that Amman was one of the most expensive cities in the Arab world. Imagine! This goes on while some Bangladeshi or some Jordanian is slaving away in a factory making crap for Wal-Mart for either a few dollars a day, or in some of the cases highlighted by the NY Times — nothing! I’m not sure how this “system” got its roots but after living in the Gulf for a while, I think I see where some early seeds were sown. The WaPo’s Anthony Shadid has done two wonderful articles examining similar issues in Dubai here and here.
If you took taxes from these companies the whole premise of the QIZ disappears. Those guys wouldn’t be there. Business attracts communities and development. One of the benefits of having a QIZ is to (in theory, all else constant) shorten the gap between amman and other, less developed cities. Just to dodge a couple of retorts, the dynamic in which this is supposed to help the country cannot really be summarized in a blog comment, so apologies for the lack of supporting evidence.
Regarding the free trade issue, I think it’s only fair that if investors put their money and expertise in OUR land that it should give them something in return, but the government has put its own political interests in front of its peoples’ welfare, by not consenting on a law that would give the employees their rights.
Another issue is the percentage of raw “local” materials used by these factories in the QIZs, which is stated to be a minimum of 20%……..this is B.S, how do we gain.
And do you think that NOT taking any taxes of these factories for 10 years is good…we could at least have made a small percentage to gain us a margin of profits.
And no.. I don’t like to be ruled under the Saudi’s umbrella in which they act out of total ignorance, but at least they don’t act in a foolish way like our government does.