The case by the AFL-CIO, the largest trade union confederation in the United States, and the National Textile Association (NTA) marks the first time a business association has formally joined in seeking a workers' rights complaint under a trade agreement.
The two organizations say they want the Bush administration to activate dispute settlement proceedings under the U.S-Jordan Free Trade Agreement that would halt the workers' rights violations occurring in Jordan.
"The main thing we're asking is for the administration to take a look at what's going on in Jordan in terms of workers rights' violations and then address those violations in a meaningful way -- which they haven't done," Steve Smith, a media officer with the AFL-CIO, told IPS. "That's the crux of the complaint. Workers rights protections were built into this Jordan FTA and they are not being enforced."
The groups say they are particularly irked by violations in the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), which are part of the FTA.
The QIZs program, launched by Washington in 1998 as an economic dividend for Jordan's peace agreement with Israel, gives products from the zones duty- and quota-free access to the U.S. market as long as the Arab nation sources at least eight percent of their content from an Israeli manufacturer.
In May, the New York-based National Labor Committee said that the FTA has descended into human trafficking and "involuntary servitude." It charged that major U.S. companies, including Wal-Mart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, Kohl's, Victoria's Secret and L.L.. Bean, were buying apparel from sweatshops in Jordan under a three-way QIZs deal.
The QIZs model has been replicated in neighboring Egypt, another country with a serious labor abuse problem.
Washington says such trade deals are one step towards integrating Israel into the Arab world and are essential for the envisaged Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA) by 2013 to include all countries of the region, an undertaking that could open markets of almost 350 million people and with a $70 billion trading relationship with the United States for U.S. corporations.
The Bush administration's march to sign trade agreements with countries with low labor standards have sparked fears among trade unions in the United States which say such FTAs are a race to the bottom where U.S. workers cannot compete with cheap labor and poor regulations.
Despite widespread complaints by local workers in the Middle East, the United States now has five free trade agreements in the region -- with Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Bahrain.
"Our experiences under the Jordan FTA strengthen our conviction that we need even more effective worker rights protections in our trade agreements and in global trade rules," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.
"Without stronger protections for workers, free trade deals can end up being a sham and a betrayal. The worst employers are rewarded with market access and higher profits, while national development goals are neglected," he said.
The joint AFL-CIO and NTA complaint charges that Jordan, whose regime is a key ally in Washington's "war on terror," has failed to meet its obligations under the Jordan FTA's labor chapter, both because its labor laws do not meet international standards and because the government has failed to effectively enforce its laws.
These factors together, the complaint states, contributed to shocking abuses of workers' rights, especially in the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), revealed in reports by the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center.
"The AFL-CIO fought hard to include meaningful labor rights provisions in the Jordan FTA -- and we will fight just as hard to ensure that our government and the Jordanian government enforce these important provisions," Sweeney said.
NTA says that lower labor standards in trade agreements also hurt U.S. competitiveness, U.S. workers.
"The egregious abuses reported in Jordan -- 100-hour workweeks, unsafe working conditions, and unpaid wages -- distort labor-market conditions globally," said Karl Spilhaus, president of NTA, the oldest industrial trade association in the U.S.
"Just as we press our government to aggressively enforce the anti-dumping and subsidy elements in our trade agreements, we also call on our government to uphold the labor rights provisions that we have negotiated in our FTAs."
U.S. officials say they found Jordan "very receptive" regarding these labor issues.
"We take any allegations of violations of labor rights by our trading partners very seriously," said Gretchen Hamel, the U.S. Trade Representative spokesperson.
"We are actively involved in discussions with the government of Jordan regarding the allegations raised in the National Labor Committee report and how best to improve the conditions of workers in Jordan," she told IPS.
The government of Jordan responded to the case by saying that it was taking measures to address the problem, without denying it.
In a statement from the Jordanian embassy in Washington, Amman said that it closed five factories over the past three months alone, and relocated more than 1,000 workers from 14 factories that were found to be in violation of the country's labor laws to factories with better working conditions.
Amman said that it also increased the number of inspectors to 180 from 80 and commissioned outside auditors to probe company records with respect to wages.
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Albion Monitor October
3, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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