Sweat the shop floor

Horrible working conditions exist in Jordanian factories that make goods we buy. Brushing it under a rug or pretending not to know doesn't make the issue go away.

Published May 27, 2007

Factory by factory, the report by the National Labor Committee documents a hellhole of abusive labor practices in the Mideast country of Jordan.

At the Al Shahaed Apparel & Textile, which made clothes for Wal-Mart and Kmart, workers were routinely forced to work 38-, 48- and even 72-hour shifts. They were paid the equivalent of 2 cents per hour. At the Western Factory, which made clothes for Wal-Mart, Kohl's and the Gap, work was seven days a week with mandatory shifts lasting 16 to 20 hours. Workers who fell asleep from exhaustion were hit with rulers until awake. (The Gap and Kmart deny any connection to these factories. But Charles Kernaghan of the NLC says illegal subcontracting occurs without the knowledge of retailers.)

The facts contained in the NLC's 2006 report (www.nlcnet.org) are a brutal indictment of American companies' complicity - whether knowing or not - in a system of abuse and exploitation of workers abroad. The mostly Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan work force was brought to Jordan to churn out duty-free goods for America's biggest retailers. The workers - some only 14 and 15 years old - were barely fed, stuffed into overcrowded dorms without running water and regularly cheated out of their already paltry wages.

I bring this up because the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 2000 and implemented by President Bush, was lauded as the first trade pact that contained labor and environmental protections in the body of the agreement. Jordan agreed to enforce its own labor laws and those core rights contained in the conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which are: the right to organize and bargain collectively, and prohibitions on compulsory labor, child labor and employment discrimination.

These protections, as well as the most basic human rights, were ignored. It took the release of the NLC's blockbuster report before conditions improved.

This example is why I approach the "historic" deal struck between congressional Democrats and the Bush administration on future trade deals with a dose of skepticism. Earlier this month, it was announced with great fanfare that labor and environmental standards would be added to pending free trade agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea.

But in the same Agence France-Presse story announcing the agreement in which Democratic leaders cheered the advance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are quoted as also welcoming the deal.

Why would the business community's representatives be applauding an agreement that guaranteed workers' rights - something they'd been fighting against for years?

Because, as Tom Donohue, president and chief executive of the chamber explained, they'd been given assurances, relative to American workers, "that the labor provisions cannot be read to require compliance with ILO conventions."

Donohue was worried about the possible enforcement of ILO-granted labor rights for U.S. workers. (Imagine, the right to organize being enforced here!) But it seems clear that these labor standards are seen as little more than window-dressing to give the Democrats cover to support more free trade. Apparently big business has been told not to worry about the facile language.

If our government won't ensure that overseas workers who produce goods that come into our country are treated decently, then maybe it's time for the private sector to have a shot. The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act has been introduced in Congress. It would bar the import of goods made with sweatshop labor and would give U.S. companies the ability to sue their competitors that sell them.

By telling U.S. firms that they have a legal obligation to ensure that the goods they sell are made by workers treated humanely, the retail sector could actually become a force for good in the world. It would help end these see-no-evil arrangements with scurrilous manufacturers, since that could get you sued by an upstanding competitor.

This year, the NLC updated its report on conditions in Jordan's factories. It found that the Needle Craft Factory deducts two days' wages if a worker misses a day of work due to illness, and the work week is routinely seven days; and the Concord Garment Factory has 131/2- to 15-hour shifts and workers can be beaten if they don't reach their production goal. Conditions in some larger factories are better and some of the worst offenders have been shuttered, but workers are still suffering in many.

In fairness, large U.S. corporations often employ monitors to scrutinize the labor conditions in overseas factories. But apparently corporations can be easily bamboozled by factories keeping a second set of books that shows workers paid fairly.

The only way to really combat this kind of abuse is through stronger laws and better enforcement. Labor rights in our trade agreements are a step. Now we need to really mean it.