Mehedi Mehedi, a 36-year-old Bangladeshi garment worker who had spent 14 years working in Jordan, left the country forever last December. It was not an easy decision to make: Mehedi had met his wife in Jordan, he had no guarantees of finding a job back in Bangladesh, and he was desperate to work in order to support his chronically ill father.
In Jordan, Mehedi had been working for a subcontracting factory that supplies apparel to brands like Ralph Lauren, Under Armour and American Eagle. But after spending his last six months without regular pay, he had reached a breaking point.
“I would work 24-hour days at least twice a month,” Mehedi said. He explained that every time he would confront his supervisor about his delayed salary, the supervisor would reassure him that he would get paid the following week, which would ultimately result in going months without compensation. Mehedi said that after complaining to several labor rights organizations – including the National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR) in Jordan and Bangladesh Overseas Employment and Services (BOESL) – to no avail, he decided to cut his losses and return to Bangladesh.
“What can I do?” says Mehedi with a sigh, “This country isn’t for me.”
Mehedi’s ordeal is a far cry from the hopeful vision that was cemented on the evening of 24 October 2000, when the then-president, Bill Clinton, and King Abdullah II of Jordan signed the first ever free trade agreement between the United States and an Arab nation.
“It will be good for the United States, good for Jordan, and good for the long-term prospects for peace in the Middle East,” said Clinton, standing in the East Room of the White House as he delivered his preceding remarks. “It will eliminate duties and break down commercial barriers. It will also cement the bonds of friendship that already exist between Jordan and the United States.”
Fueled by migrant workers and a duty-free market, what followed over the course of two decades was the transformation of Jordan’s garment industry into a “magnet for apparel manufacturing”, as the Wall Street Journal described it. American companies such as Walmart and Target established factories in Jordan’s Al-Hassan industrial zone in the city of Irbid. Five years after the agreement had gone into effect, Jordan’s garment exports to the US had already surged twentyfold, ultimately comprising 95% of the country’s overall apparel exports. Today, dozens of American fashion brands, including Nike, Gap and Hanes source apparel from factories in Jordan.
But the rapid growth of Jordan’s garment sector thrust another issue into the limelight: a labor violations crisis that dominated headlines in both Jordan and the US.
In 2006, the National Labor Committee (NLC) published a 126-page exposé detailing cases of rampant sexual assault, physical abuse, grueling work hours and human trafficking in major Jordanian factories producing apparel for Victoria’s Secret, Kohl’s, JCPenney and other American retailers. “These are the worst conditions I’ve ever seen,” Charles Kernaghan, NLC executive director, told the New York Times in 2006. “You have people working 48 hours straight. You have workers who were stripped of their passports, who don’t have ID cards that allow them to go out on the street. If they’re stopped, they can be imprisoned or deported, so they’re trapped, often held under conditions of involuntary servitude.”
In February 2008, the Better Work Jordan (BWJ) initiative was launched as a response to this crisis. Created as a partnership between the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corporation, and supported by the Jordanian Ministry of Labor and the US Department of Labor, BWJ has steadily worked towards improving labor conditions in Jordanian factories that export to the US. Through a combination of research, training programs and random compliance assessments, BWJ has made significant strides in dealing with issues such as the confiscation of workers’ passports and the use of forced labor tactics.
“Better work is now part of the ecosystem here. We have this kind of mutual trust that we’ve gained over a long period of time,” says Tariq Abu Qaoud, BWJ’s program manager, who has held multiple positions in the garment sector over the past 20 years. “But the most challenging part is figuring out how to change the mindset of some stakeholders in order to improve working conditions,” said Abu Qaoud. “There are some norms that have been in the country for many years, and that’s what we need to change.”
Abolishing these “norms” has proven to be a herculean task. Despite the progress introduced by BWJ in recent years, labor rights activists and researchers around the world continue to highlight cases of sexual misconduct, physical and verbal harassment, wage theft and hazardous work environments that continue to plague the sector.
Last year, in a study conducted by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) about the working conditions for female Bangladeshi garment workers in Jordan, all participating focus groups reported having experienced some form of verbal abuse.
The report noted that workers “… are meant to function like pieces of the machinery they are required to handle”. In one interview, a participant described the physical abuse she had experienced during peak season: “When I made a mistake, the supervisor took me to the floor-in-charge to complain. He got very upset with me and punched me in my face.” Another described the racist language directed toward her, “Bangladeshis are cheap. If I send back one, I can get back 10!”
The report also emphasized the impact these abuses had on the psychological wellbeing of workers. Last year alone, four migrant garment workers in Jordan committed suicide. “I don’t want to get up in the morning and go to work. I wish I would never have to wake up again,” one woman told a researcher – a quote that was later chosen as the title of the study.
The activists who spoke to the Guardian described these abuses as the result of a systemic problem. “The people here, the ones with connections, they don’t joke around with this. And they won’t go easy on the people who bring it up,” said one woman, a labor rights activist at the Workers Center in the industrial zone. Having worked closely with migrant workers over the years, she has faced multiple lawsuits from factory owners and their counterparts for protesting labor violations and leaking information to the press (“The government of Jordan and America combined have not done as much for us as she has,” Mehedi had declared at one point, laughing).
A former garment worker herself, she told the Guardian about other incidents migrant workers have come to her with; of the crowded, often bedbug-infested workers’ dormitories and the unhygienic food they are provided with; supervisors taking off their shoes and threatening to throw it at employees who don’t meet their demands; a worker who was choked and his toes bloodied after a manager stomped on his feet, who refused to report the incident to police despite her urging him to do so.
“I can guarantee you, 1 million per cent, that the brands know about the situation,” said a Workers Center employee. “They read reports about it. They come in and they search and they look at the residences and the food. And it’s never up to par. And even with that, they don’t do anything. They take no action. They just want to run their businesses.”
The issue of American brand accountability in Jordan was also highlighted by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRC) in 2017. After approaching 21 US brands – including Nike, JC Penney, Under Armor, and Costco – on how they tackle abuse against migrant workers making their clothes in Jordan, only six brands responded to the survey, and the report concluded, “Low engagement on the situation in Jordan by brands … indicating brands may not be prioritizing action in a region where serious abuses – including forced labor – are known to occur.”
The Guardian reached out to 12 American brands who source, or have sourced, products from the Jordanian garment factories where such labor abuses reportedly occurred. Only three responded, and none addressed the specific allegations. In an email, a spokesperson for Costco declined to comment. In another email, an Under Armour spokesperson said that when they detect issues with partner factories in Jordan, “including any issues regarding foreign migrant workers, we work with the supplier … to ensure that applicable laws and these codes of conduct are complied with and respected.” A representative for Walmart wrote that they hold suppliers accountable “… using independent third parties to evaluate supply chain practices and, when necessary, investigating allegations of wrongdoing by our suppliers or the facilities they use”.
Although auditors do come in for random checks on behalf of the brands, Ahlam Al Teerawi, a representative for the trade union’s office in the industrial zone, described how these audits are often viewed as a formality. “Unfortunately, when the auditors come by for routine checks, and choose 10-15 workers to interview at random, HR often gets to them first and lectures them on what to say.” She describes a system in which workers who give positive feedback are rewarded with bonuses, while those who report violations or concerns are at risk of getting fired and deported.
Beyond these existing issues, the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly detrimental to the Jordanian garment industry’s migrant-majority workforce. Recent local media reports have shed light on the mass layoff of hundreds of garment workers who were left stranded in Jordan for months without pay. Former Burmese, Cambodian and Sri Lankan migrants workers at Vega Textile, which has produced apparel for American brands including Gap and Banana Republic, and Camel Textile, which has sold garments to Ralph Lauren and Talbots, were among those laid off, prompting protests from migrants in Jordan and rights groups abroad.
Farhan Ifraim, the chairman of the Jordan Garments, Accessories & Textiles Exporter’s Association (JGATE) acknowledges the problems that persist in Jordan’s garment industry, but maintains that they are isolated in nature, and do not speak to a larger pattern. “There is nothing that is 100% perfect. We are improving every day. Obviously we have issues, we have challenges, but we are hacking them,” he says. “It is a regulated sector, it’s a sector that is – I hate for somebody to call it a sweatshop or anything near a sweatshop.”
Ifraim, a 25-year garment industry veteran and factory CEO, moved from the United Arab Emirates back to Jordan in 2005. Like many others in the apparel sector at the time, he wanted to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the Free Trade Agreement that first launched Jordan into the spotlight as a global textile hub.
“In today’s world, developing countries can achieve growth without making some of the mistakes developed nations made on our path to industrialization,” said President Clinton, before signing the landmark agreement 20 years ago. “The idea that to grow more you had to exploit both workers and the environment, is simply no longer true.”
Whether that statement rings true for garment workers in Jordan, however, remains unclear.