Jordan Sees an Ugly Side of Free Trade

Propelled by a free-trade agreement with the United States, apparel manufacturing is booming in Jordan, its exports to America soaring 20-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.

A worker advocacy group 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.

"We used to start at 8 in the morning, and we'd work until midnight, 1 or 2 a.m., seven days a week," said Nargis Akhter, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi who, in a phone interview from Bangladesh, said she worked last year for the Paramount Garment factory outside Amman. "When we were in Bangladesh, they promised us we would receive $120 a month, but in the five months I was there I only got one month's salary -- and that was just $50."

The group, the National Labor Committee, which is based in New York, found substandard conditions in more than 25 of Jordan's roughly 100 garment factories. Its findings were supported in interviews with current and former workers.

Such complaints have dogged the apparel industry for years, even as it has adopted measures to improve working conditions in factories that produce clothing for American and European consumers. But the abusive conditions that the guest workers described show how hard it is to control sweatshops as factories spring up in new places, often without effective monitoring in place.

In recent years, Jordan has become a magnet for apparel manufacturers, helped by the privileged trade position that the United States has given it because of its 1994 peace accord with Israel and a free-trade agreement signed with Washington in 2001.

Jordan's apparel industry, which exported $1.2 billion to the United States last year, employs tens of thousands of guest workers, mainly from Bangladesh and China.

In interviews this week, five Bangladeshis who used to work in Jordanian apparel factories and four who still do had similar tales, of paying more than $1,000 to work in Jordan, of working 90 to 120 hours per week, of not being paid the overtime guaranteed by Jordanian law and of sleeping 10 or 20 to a small dormitory room. The National Labor Committee helped arrange interviews with the Bangladeshi workers.

The largest retailer in the United States, Wal-Mart, and one of its largest clothing makers, Jones Apparel, confirmed Tuesday that they had discovered serious problems with the conditions at several major Jordanian factories.

Beth Keck, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the company did not own or manage factories, but tried to improve working conditions in Jordan and elsewhere. "It is a continuous challenge, not just for Wal-Mart but for any company," she said.