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Jordan's Sweatshops: The Carrot or the Stick of US Policy?

by Aaron GlantzSpecial to CorpWatch
February 26th, 2003

King Abdullah of Jordan
King Abdullah cuts fabric at factory launch. Ad-Dulayl Factory

Amman, Jordan -- Syed Adil Ali walks across the ground floor of the two story Silver Planet textile mill outside the Jordanian capital, Amman. The Pakistani national points at a multi-colored pile of clothes ready to be shipped to the United States.

"This is an order for Wal-Mart," he says. "It's shorts. Boy's shorts. We export for all the big US retailers. Target, Wal-Mart and JC Penny."

While the world focuses on a potential war on Iraq and the future of country's vast untapped oil resources, US companies of a different kind are rapidly extending their influence throughout the Arab world. Under the terms of its 1994 peace agreement with Israel and its newly inked Free Trade Agreement with the United States, Iraq's neighbor Jordan has seen a massive increase in clothing manufacturing for the US market.

Qualified Industrial Zones

Three years ago, not a single textile mill in Jordan exported to the big US retailers. Today, there are more than 40 thousand workers, toiling in more than 60 factories producing solely for the US market. Washington inserted a provision into Jordan's 1994 peace agreement with Israel giving Jordan permission to export products duty free to the United States, provided at least eight percent of their industrial inputs come from Israel. These special factories are located in Jordan's Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs).

"The QIZs are very important to the American government," says Zaid Marar, spokesperson for the Al-Tajamout QIZ which houses the Silver Planet factory. "Jordan is a buffer state between Israel and its hostile Arab neighbors so its very important that Jordan's economy be linked with the U.S. economy."

Late last year, Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Elizabeth Cheney paid a visit to the Al-Tajamout compound. The State Department official is also the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. "Jordan is a strategic tool for both the US and Israel," Marar says, noting the importance of the visit.

And yet, Jordanians own almost none of the factories. Most are owned and operated by entrepreneurs from China, Taiwan, Korea, India, Pakistan or the Philippines who import workers from over-seas.

Of the some 40 thousand workers employed in these Qualified Industrial Zones, fewer than half are Jordanian. Ninety percent are women under the age of 22, and almost all of them pay the minimum wage, about $3.50 a day.

Factory owner Syed Adil Ali says his factory only contracts Sri Lankan girls.

"They are very peace minded girls," he says. "I found some kind of problem with the boys. They made some kind of union, some kind of disturbance in the factory. So we prefer the girls."

There is no union at Syed's factory which earns more than 2 million dollars a year in profits. He is planning on adding a third floor and hundreds more workers.

Poor Living and Working Conditions

Zaid Marar drives his blue BMW around the Al-Tajamout Qualified Industrial Zone. The public relations official displays the living quarters for the thousands of foreign workers housed at the industrial park. He says the dormitories comply with the minimum human rights standards permitted by US retail giants.

"There are 80 people per floor, ten rooms in each," Marar explains. "There are eight people per room and five and a half square feet of space for each according to J.C. Penny's specifications."

Syed Adil Ali's work force of 600 is housed in one of these army-barracks style buildings. They are required to live on the factory grounds -- far away from the city. Because of their sixty five-hour workweek, the workers rarely leave the complex. The company provides for their basic needs. For most of these workers, the company even supplies their only source of food and drinking water.

Immigrant Workers Have Few Rights

Close to 50 Indian men stand outside one of Amman's main police stations where they tried to file a complaint against their employer. Apparently their grievance fell on deaf ears.

One of the workers shakes his head. "Jordan is very bad," he says. "(There are) no rules, no factory rules."

The workers say their boss at the Al-Tajamout Qualified Industrial Zone refused to pay them for three months, refused to feed them for a week and then fled Jordan for the Philippines. Their factory, Tamashi Industries, manufactured the Simply Basic line of children's clothing for Wal-Mart.

"Three months no pay, no food," screams one of the workers. "Bad, bad, bad, very bad."

The workers make significantly more than they would in India. Here, the average wage in a garment factory is about $3.50 a day, compared to about $2.50 a day in India. But in Jordan, the workers have no rights.

Factory owners work with agents in South and East Asia to locate workers interested in coming to work in Jordan. They apply to the Jordanian Ministry of Labor for visas which restrict them to working only for the factories that bring them. Then, they buy the worker a one-way ticket to Amman.

When the employer is finished with the worker, he buys the worker a ticket home. When employees try to start a union, as 120 Bangladeshis did last month, they are summarily deported.

Because the owner fled the country, the Indian workers from Tamashi Industries are stuck in Jordan with no work permit and no way to get home.

"I want to go back to India," one of the workers says standing in front of the police station, "But I have no ticket, no ticket. No work permit to work."

Under New Management

Tamashi Industries will reopen under the ownership of Elias Jamil Bashara. The Filipino businessman is the brother of Levana Fadicaram, the man who skipped the country without paying his workers. The factory has a new name now, Alven Fashion Manufacturing, but the building, the machines, and even the office telephone number are the same. The biggest concern for the factory manager, Mazen Baghdadi, is the four weeks of lost production time caused by the chaos.

"But soon we will have an order for Wal-Mart or Target and we will start up again," he notes cheerfully.

Baghdadi says the company is looking for a new crop of foreign workers. "We had some Indian workers but they left," he says. He says he doesn't know which country the next group of workers will come from, "Maybe China, maybe the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh."

Free Trade Carrot and Sanctions Stick

Jordan's Textile Trade Union has no problem with the current situation. The union's President, Falthalla Omrani flew to Washington for the Free Trade Agreement's signing ceremony. "You have to start somewhere," he says. "Jordan needs foreign investment. We need factories." Analysts here say that for decades the government has controlled unions here, with more militant activists languishing in prison for years.

Overwhelmingly, though, Jordanians oppose both the Free Trade Agreement with the United States and the peace treaty with Israel. Most Jordanians would like to bring back the trading regime that was in place before George Bush Sr. declared war on Iraq in 1991. Before the Gulf War sanctions, Jordan ran a brisk $1.2 billion trade with Iraq. Now, that trade has been cut by more than half. The official unemployment rate is 20 percent. Most observers think the real rate is much higher.

In the Bacca Palestinian refugee camp outside Amman, locally owned factories that used to sell to Iraq are shuttered, their work-force laid off, their equipment for sale.

Navri Sarisi is President of a community center at the Bacca Camp. Like many people here, he believes the United States is trying to set up a relationship between Israel and Jordan similar to the one between United States and Mexico. He notes the minimum wage in Israel is eight times the minimum wage in Jordan.

"The trade agreements came by force of the United States," he says, "and the best example are these Qualified Industrial Zones. The Israelis are investing money in very cheap labor where people work long hours. They are getting free access to the U.S. market duty free and customs free and this contributed largely to the collapse of the locally based industry."

When the US launched its war on Iraq in 1991, Jordan took a massive hit. King Hussein refused to support the American invasion and in retaliation the Bush Senior Administration cut off all US aid. With trade with Iraq a fraction of it once was, the country has been forced to turn to the West -- to Israel and the United States -- for economic partners. Critics worry that this comes at a high political cost.

"The government (of King Abdullah) is trying to shift Jordan from a pro-Arab country to a country that gives in to what Bush wants and what (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon." says leading opposition politician Laith Spilat.

Dr. Ibrahim Aloosh is more blunt. The US trained economist publishes an on-line magazine called the Free Arab Voice. "They're turning Jordan into a colony for the United States and the Zionist entity," he explains. "And if you say Iraq won't be next you got to be kidding me."

Aaron Glantz, Producer of Free Speech Radio News, is currently reporting on the war on Iraq from Turkey and Jordan.