Jordan’s ‘sweatshops’

The New York Times ran a very disturbing story today about the mistreatment of workers in Jordanian factories that were established as part of the Qualified Industrial Zones or QIZs. The article claims that these factories are essentially sweatshops. Here in an excerpt:

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

An advocacy group for workers 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. Source: [New York Times]

I have to admit that I was extremely disturbed by this report, as the situation in these factories looks very similar — if not worse — than the status Asian workers suffer under in Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. I have a feeling that this report will not go unnoticed since there are a number of Jordanian officials quoted in the article — including the Jordanian ambassador in DC, Karim Kawar. I hope these revelations will prompt the Jordanian government to intervene and end the alleged worker abuse once and for all. I also find it disappointing that we have to read about this in an American newspaper and not a Jordanian one. Where are the journalists in Jordan? Does anyone dare to write such a report?

Meanwhile, Jordanian blogger Khalaf reports that the minimum wage in Jordan has been increased in Jordan. However, workers at the QIZ factories have been excluded from this increase. He says:

Zuhair Kayed, head of the higher council for population, says that 733,000 people in Jordan are living on less than a dinar a day. So, the dilemma is whether low paying jobs in sweatshops are better than not offering any economic opportunities for the poor at all. The implication is that the factories can easily be relocated to other countries with cheaper labor. Given the alternative, I would grudgingly go for providing choice for people. Fahed Fanek suggests that the owners of the clothing factories are overplaying their hand, and that they can afford to raise the wages of their workers in the country. If his math is correct, I don’t see why the government went along with deferring raising of wages in these factories.

Here are some reactions from the Jordanian blogosphere: What’s up in Jordan, and Ajnabiyeh.

By Natasha Tynes

I’m a Jordanian-American journalist, writer, and media development professional based in Washington, DC.


  1. Natasha, thank you for bringing our attention to this article, which made my blood boil. At first, I was thinking to myself, hold on, what Bangladeshi and Chinese workers in Jordan, I ain’t seen any, anywhere! But then, if they work 20 hour days and are abused in these sweatshops, where the hell are we gonna see them? It’s not like they’ll get the chance to gallivant around the city. Or afford to.
    This is disgusting. This is an outright violation of human rights in our backyard and we aren’t even aware of it. At least, I’m not. I had no idea we had Wal Mart factories in the outskirts of Amman.
    If we cannot even have worker rights in a country trying to establish an economical boom, if we can’t even ensure that the minimum wage laws are implemented, which they are NOT by the way, then how exactly do we expect our country to flourish, and in what way? We have a Jordanian population suffering from unemployment, and yet unprepared to face up to the menial jobs required to keep society functioning smoothly – those jobs that include waiting at tables, caretaking at buildings, gardening, construction work, stone masonry, newspaper routes, and so on. Jordanians would never dirty their hands with such jobs. They are left to Egyptians and Syrians and apparently, Bangladeshis and Chinese. Then we complain on unemployment. And so the foreign workers are under paid and over worked, and instead of finding a solution to this problem, and making these jobs appealing to our own countrymen, we abuse it.
    I digress. But it’s all related. And unfortunately, not only to Jordan. As you pointed out Natasha, this applies in the UAE, and the point of using foriegn workers form minorities to fill the positions of such jobs I just mentiooned definately applies in countries like the US, Canada, the UK, so on. HOWEVER, these countries are functioning economies, which Jordan, as much as it fools itself, is not – not yet.
    So I just don’t get it.
    I’m mad!
    (Ooops, sorry, this is a long comment, I didn’t realize I had ranted on for so long.)

  2. Hal,
    You can’t complain about minimum wage and unemployment at the same time…One causes the other you know. Moreover, aside from the whole passport revocation, jailtime etcetera, you cannot say that foreign workers are underpaid – it is a subjective statement. To foreign workers, the market clearing wage is the one they are getting; otherwise, they would pack up, just like they did before coming to Jordan, and seek other, more satisfactory employment.
    I share your frustration regarding Jordanian workers refusing to take jobs in what they think are degrading industries such as construction, waiting, house keeping, and airline hosting to name a few. In a place where everyone thinks they should be ministers, market failures are bound to happen and imposing a minimum wage surely increases excess labor.

  3. Hamako, I see your point, and perhaps I was not exactly articulte. I just resent the claim that Jordan even HAS a minimum wage, when I see rare evidence of it. I know families existing on 50 JD and less, so I would love to know where exactly this minimum wage is implemented. Not even secretaries and receptionists can claim minimum wage, and they are considered better paid than a majority of the population, sadly enough, on 70 to 100 JD a month.
    And with employment, I meant to bring up the point that we complain about employment, and yet are picky about the jobs we choose. Perhaps unrelated, but both pet peeves!

  4. On a positive note, I knew a Phillipina seamtress who worked for the QIZ company that provides J.C. Penney clothing training unskilled Jordanian women! This to me was an excellent model, and I wish someone would write more about it to shame Wal*Mart and Target.

  5. I was really annoyed by your obervations from the post “the trip back to Jordan” …
    “As for my assessment of the capital Amman, it seems to be doing really well. Money seems to be pumping into this city, as it becomes more cosmopolitan by the day. Construction is taking place literally everywhere. Brand spanking new projects are mushrooming up all over the place and the talk of foreign investments is continual.”
    And I am glad that you read the above article, maybe it will help you rejoin the real world, and stop being delusional about our situation. Have you been outside of Amman il Gharbieh during your last visit? How is the booming economy in Madaba. We live outside of the country for a few years and all of a sudden we are acting like tourists.

  6. I heard this from an American friend of mine but i told him that this is arguable…since the Jordanian workers make an average total of 41% of the total sum of workers in the QIZs. the one in Irbid, Amman, and in the south.
    1) Jordanian workers get paid 95 JD’s while their foreign colleagues get 300$.
    2) If you go around Irbid in the weekends you’ll see a lot of Chinese in the Safeway(yes buying their stuff of places other ordinary Jordanians don’t even get near off) and in university street.
    3) Most of the QIZs are owned by foreign investors, primarily by Israelis and Chinese investors

  7. Bassel,
    1) Employers assess that the quality of a foreign worker (education, experience, expertise, etc..) is worth an extra 205JD per month. Free market system, we are no longer in autarky
    2)No idea what your point was, anything against the Chinese increasing our GDP?
    3) Not accurate. There are a lot of foreign investors with equity stakes in companies located in the QIZs (tangent: since QIZ referes to a zone, it cannot be owned by anyone), this doesn’t mean that the compaies are wholly owned by foreign investors. Even if they were owned by foreign investors, where’s the problem? Would you like a Saudi-like law stating that a local should have the majority in every company? No ownership based on business merit? Moving on…Jordan has a peace agreement with Israel, meaning Israelis can come in to the counrty and operate enterprise and vice versa. Whether or not I agree with that is a seperate issue which should be under the guise of ‘politics’ or ‘fairness’ or ‘foreign policy’ rather than ‘economic policy and reform’.

  8. As-Salamu Alaykum,
    Thank you for your post, and for raising such an important topic.
    Unsurprisingly, I had a similar reaction to the everyone else when reading this article in the NYT, however, let me bring to your attention a similar article in the BBC ( titled, “Privatising’ the peace process”.
    Personally, I find this article even more shocking than Times’. It is sad to see the Jordanian state putting its own self-interest above all else, I believe this approach of extreme ‘realpolitik’ rather worrying for the region as a whole.
    Since when has the destiny of the Palestinian ‘brother’ and ‘neighbour’ become a commodity, traded and sold for profit? I believe this will go down in history as another of Jordan’s great stances and ‘unforgettable favours’ towards their Palestinian friends!

  9. It is interesting to read this discussion. For those of us not in Jordan, we learn a little – i.e that you have QIZ zones, and that the notion of “minimum wage” is confusing. Not all commenters seem to agree on minimum wage – or even that it exists.
    As a US citizen, beware of what you read in the New York Times. Before you take off on a crusade that really didn’t need to begin, check the story out. Most folks here in the US only read the NYT to understand what the left wing bias is today. Check the sources. The story could be true or it may be completely slanted, with the true answer somewhere in the middle.

  10. tblubird, isn’t that true of all newspapers and of the media in general? The NY Times is no more guilty of being biased than any other paper.

  11. Hamako,
    Regarding the free trade issue, I think it’s only fair that if investors put their money and expertise in OUR land that it should give them something in return, but the government has put its own political interests in front of its peoples’ welfare, by not consenting on a law that would give the employees their rights.
    Another issue is the percentage of raw “local” materials used by these factories in the QIZs, which is stated to be a minimum of 20%……..this is B.S, how do we gain.
    And do you think that NOT taking any taxes of these factories for 10 years is good…we could at least have made a small percentage to gain us a margin of profits.
    And no.. I don’t like to be ruled under the Saudi’s umbrella in which they act out of total ignorance, but at least they don’t act in a foolish way like our government does.

  12. If you took taxes from these companies the whole premise of the QIZ disappears. Those guys wouldn’t be there. Business attracts communities and development. One of the benefits of having a QIZ is to (in theory, all else constant) shorten the gap between amman and other, less developed cities. Just to dodge a couple of retorts, the dynamic in which this is supposed to help the country cannot really be summarized in a blog comment, so apologies for the lack of supporting evidence.

  13. Those of you familiar with Naomi Klein’s No Logo [this FAQ has some excellent ‘sweatshop’ tidbits] have doubtless recognized many of the key issues with Free Trade Zones and QIZs in Jordan. The US of A seems to be doling out these free trade zones all over the globe. So what do these zones and the Free Trade Agreements (FTA) do? Well, look at Jordan. While some of those inside these zones are Jordanian businesses, many are not. These “outside” businesses come to Jordan for cheap labor and to take advantage of the low/zero import duties to the almighty US market.
    Does it benefit Jordan? Well, as Hamako remarked, that is a long debate. What you can see clearly and easily is that the awarding of free trade zones allows multinational corporations to go around the world and cherry pick little constituencies that have cheap labor for the production of their goods. In essence, the US opens the doors to cheap labor in some of these countries and puts a good spin on it with the “FTA” moniker — breaking down the resistance that was growing in areas where there was no US cover, like Bangladesh and the Philippines. So, these factories pump out the Land’s End, the Victoria’s Secret and the rest of it on the backs of people that — even with the increase in the minimum wage — still make less than $200 a month!
    Just think of the connections here. The US wants to help business, so it opens FTA zones in areas where there is ample cheap labor plus these companies don’t have to pay any import duties, allowing them to have the best of both worlds: They don’t have to pay a living wage but they also don’t have to pay import duties for using developing world labor. It’s a pretty twisted system. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s more to this still.
    While I know in a number of instances Jordan is working hard to improve some of these circumstances — through work programs that train and get more Jordanian labor involved — but the wages still suffer. And as the article illustrates, in the interim a little cottage industry has sprung up importing the world’s cheapest labor to fill the bill. I think the end plan from Jordan’s perspective is to get rid of the imported labor and only use domestic. Natasha wrote about this once before and I’d remarked about the social changes that might come of this, as young girls move into dormitories and become the family’s primary breadwinner.
    The bottom line remains, whether it’s the poor, abused imported workers, or whether it’s the Jordanians that one day may replace the whole of them, the wages being paid are far from fair. And the blame does not rest solely on the shoulders of the multinational corporations that exploit this system. It’s also partly on those of us that purchase the products and continually press for cheaper prices and a continuing upward trend in corporations’ profits. As we press for more cheap goods and pack Wal-Marts, Targets and Carrefour’s buying those goods we are creating a huge press for cheap, exploited labor. It’s a vicious cycle.
    I only hope to see Jordan slowly press out the imported labor, to integrate Jordanians into the ownership process and to slowly watch the unions do what they can — and do in many instances — and press for wages and benefits that jibe with the cost of living in the kingdom. Natasha posted recently that Amman was one of the most expensive cities in the Arab world. Imagine! This goes on while some Bangladeshi or some Jordanian is slaving away in a factory making crap for Wal-Mart for either a few dollars a day, or in some of the cases highlighted by the NY Times — nothing! I’m not sure how this “system” got its roots but after living in the Gulf for a while, I think I see where some early seeds were sown. The WaPo’s Anthony Shadid has done two wonderful articles examining similar issues in Dubai here and here.

  14. Did you know that most of the “foreign” companies operating in Jordan’s industrial zones are owned by Jordanians with double or triple citizenships? It’s about time Jordan’s Untouchables pay the price for causing so much harm to Jordan and its people.
    I am proud of being Jordanian but I am disappointed at the failure of our “liberal” institutions and those who are in a position to make a difference. The Jordanian liberal intelligential has the biggest lips when it comes paying lip service to any humanitarian cause. But when it comes to doing anything, they and the rest of us, stand on the sidelines and throw our hands in the air.
    Sometimes I think the liberal intelligentsia in the Arab world exists only to whitewash the failures of their government sugar-daddies or to protect themselves from the scrutiny and criticism of the West, leaving the Islamists to champion the poor and care for the needy. Until one day we wake up and there is another Islamist victory in every Arab country.
    Let’s face it; the liberalism of the Arab elite seems to surface only when we are humiliated in public, not because we have a guilty conscience. We know about all the problems that pop up every now and then in the Western press. We are quick to distance ourselves with our empty condemnations from social, economic, and political inequities when the same elite are the ultimate beneficiaries of these inequities. The fact is, most members of the Arab neo-liberal intelligentsia got their education and perks as a result of the unfair distribution of wealth.
    I doubt there will ever be a true liberal movement in the Arab world in the coming decades. All we have is a grotesque neo-liberal movement that blames the victims for the failure and corruption of the official institutions, where the former (the citizen) is always the problem and the latter (the regime and its institutions) is the enlightened victim whose brilliant vision for progress is dragged down by the backwardness of their citizens.
    Shame on us for being so hypocritical.

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