- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

Jordan’s trade minister yesterday acknowledged that his country had failed to enforce its own labor laws in some instances, but said the government is shutting down factories that abuse workers and taking other steps to stem violations.

“Our verification and inspection regimes may have failed us and in some cases failed us miserably. This is where we will require a lot of action and a lot of rectification,” said Sharif Ali Zu’bi, minister of trade and industry.

Mr. Zu’bi was in Washington Thursday and yesterday to meet with the Bush administration, lawmakers and business groups after a May report by the National Labor Committee said the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement encouraged sweatshop conditions in Jordanian garment factories.

The NLC, a New York nonprofit group, cataloged the abuse of tens of thousands of foreign workers brought to Jordan to work in factories that exported garments to the West. The workers were “stripped of their passports, trapped in involuntary servitude, sewing clothing for Wal-Mart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, Kohl’s, Thalia Sodi for Kmart, Victoria’s Secret, L.L. Bean and others,” the group said.

The report disturbed government officials in Amman and Washington, with Democrats calling for a U.S. government investigation of labor conditions in Jordan.

In a follow-up report this week, the NLC said Jordan had since made substantial improvements at many factories, but that violations of worker rights continue at smaller subcontractors.

“There are continuing horror stories in these factories,” the group said.

Mr. Zu’bi yesterday said his government had closed three of the factories where the NLC found abuses, three already had closed on their own and there was no record of another three companies the NLC had cited in its report.

“They either shape up or they ship out. That is the clear message. We are at zero tolerance,” he told a group of reporters.

Mr. Zu’bi said he relayed the same message to Bush administration officials and U.S. lawmakers. He also requested technical assistance to strengthen the country’s system for inspecting labor conditions in factories.

“I was very impressed by the manner in which Jordan has responded to the revelation of what was happening in their country to foreign workers,” Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said after meeting with Mr. Zu’bi.

The Maryland lawmaker said Jordan has been one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East, but that he and other lawmakers want to see a sustained response to ensure adequate worker protection.

The United States could respond to the violations with trade sanctions under the free-trade agreement, a possibility floated by organized labor but so far rejected by Mr. Cardin and other lawmakers.

Jordan’s exports to the United States — about 90 percent of which are textiles and apparel — have skyrocketed since the free-trade deal, to almost $1.3 billion last year from $229 million in 2001. The agreement was implemented in December 2001.

The bulk of exports comes from the 114 companies inside qualified industrial zones that produce mostly garments and export mostly to the United States under the free-trade agreement and other trade arrangements.

The NLC said it would be difficult to stamp out abuse at those factories, which employ thousands of workers from Bangladesh, China and other countries.

“Ending the violation of foreign guest workers’ rights in Jordan will not be a walk in the park,” the NLC said.a