For more than a year, the Bangladeshi garment workers toiled as long as 16 hours a day at a factory in Jordan's free trade zone, sewing women's apparel for companies including J.C. Penney Co. and Target Corp.
They received less than 50 cents an hour for working as many as 100 hours a week, labor activists said. Last spring, 175 workers walked out of the Atateks garment factory in Al Tajamouat Industrial City in Sahab, Jordan, at the end of an eight-hour shift after their request for more money and better working conditions was refused.
Instead of bigger paychecks, the 10 workers who led the protest were beaten by police, detained and deported to their homeland in early August, said Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, a New York-based labor rights group. He said the remaining workers at the Turkish-owned factory were warned that they would meet a similar fate if they didn't return promptly to their sewing machines.
In the last month, foreign workers at two other factories in Jordan have struck with similar complaints about pay and working conditions.
Kernaghan and other critics of U.S. trade policy say the recent incidents illustrate the dangers of forging trade agreements that don't adequately protect workers from abuse. The 2001 U.S.-Jordan Trade Agreement had been hailed as a model for labor rights because it was the first time that protections for workers were written into a trade pact.
Under the agreement, part of America's efforts to reward its allies and bolster struggling economies in the Middle East, Jordan gained duty-free access to the U.S. market for most of its goods. In exchange, Jordanian officials agreed to police minimum wage laws, overtime requirements and limits on working hours.
Attracted by low wages, foreign manufacturers flocked to Jordan. Apparel exports to the U.S. soared to more than $1 billion in 2005, up from $42.7 million in 2000.
But labor advocates say the Bush administration failed to closely monitor the labor situation in Jordan, creating a situation in which factory owners in that country were able to exploit their largely imported workforce without fear of penalty.
In a report originally released last March and updated two weeks ago, the National Labor Committee accused apparel factories in Jordan of abusing thousands of foreign workers from countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, subjecting them to harsh working conditions and confiscating their passports to prevent them from fleeing the factories or complaining to authorities. In some cases, the report says, workers were beaten and raped.
"I didn't expect them to be promoting the worker's right to organize," Kernaghan said of the Jordanian government. "But I never expected it would descend into some of the worst working conditions we've ever seen."
Kernaghan, who recently returned from a trip to Bangladesh where he interviewed the deported workers, said a campaign by the Jordanian government had improved working conditions at 80% of the country's factories. But he said serious labor violations were still taking place.
Ilhan Arslan, general manager of Atateks, denied the labor group's accusations about his company, saying they were "99% false statements." He said that his factory in Jordan was on the government's Golden List of best suppliers and had never failed an inspection by its U.S. customers.
Arslan said Atateks' workers were paid above the government-mandated minimum wage of $134 a month and received free food and housing. Arslan said the deportations of the 10 Bangladeshis, which took place Aug. 6, were "beyond our control." Jordanian officials told Atateks that the employees couldn't get their work permits renewed because they had failed security reviews, he said.
J.C. Penney spokesman Tim Lyons said his firm's inspectors found no evidence that Atateks, which was audited in May 2005, was guilty of violating any labor laws. Target did not respond to a request about Atateks, although it said in a written statement that it was reviewing the records of all its suppliers in Jordan.
Since 1994, when the U.S. government signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, labor activists have complained that the pact did not provide sufficient protections for workers. They said NAFTA encouraged companies to move to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages and weaker labor laws.
The Clinton administration vowed to correct that in the agreement with Jordan, which was the first trade pact to include a promise by both signatories that they would enforce their labor laws or risk losing their special trade privileges.
But labor advocates said the Bush administration, which took power shortly after the agreement took effect, failed to ensure that Jordan kept its side of the bargain.
"The fact that there really was no pressure coming from the U.S. side was a serious problem," said Sandra Polaski, a Clinton-era State Department official who helped negotiate the pact.