AFL-CIO and National Textile Association file first-ever worker rights case under US-Jordan FTA

AFL-CIO and National Textile Association File First-Ever Worker Rights Case Under U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement

September 21, 2006

The AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the U.S., representing more than 10 million workers, and the National Textile Association, which represents U.S. textile producers, mainly in the knitting, weaving, and finishing sectors, joined to file the first worker rights case ever submitted under the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

This is the first time that a business association has formally joined in filing a worker rights case under a trade agreement. The groups called on the Bush Administration to initiate dispute settlement proceedings under the FTA that would halt gross workers’ rights violations occurring in Jordan.

The complaint charges that the Jordanian government has failed to meet its obligations under the Jordan FTA’s labor chapter, both because its labor laws fall short of international standards and because the government has failed to effectively enforce its laws. These factors together, the complaint states, contributed to scandalous abuses of workers’ rights, especially in the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), revealed in reports by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center (http://www.solidaritycenter.org/files/JordanFinal.pdf) and the National Labor Committee earlier this year.

“We are delighted that the NTA has joined the AFL-CIO in filing this historic case,” said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. “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.”

“It isn’t just labor that has an interest in protecting workers’ rights around the world,” said Karl Spilhaus, president of NTA, the nation’s oldest industrial trade association. “U.S. producers are also hurt when unscrupulous employers violate the rights of their workers abroad or when governments fail to enforce their labor laws.”

The AFL-CIO and the NTA reiterated that effective enforcement of the labor rights provisions in trade agreements is crucial to the competitiveness of American businesses that are still producing on American soil.

“The egregious abuses reported in Jordan - 100-hour workweeks, unsafe working conditions, and unpaid wages - distort labor-market conditions globally,” said Spilhaus. “Just as we press our government to aggressively enforce the antidumping 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.”

“The labor rights provisions are in fact among the most important in any FTA,” said Sweeney, “because trade liberalization without respect for workers’ rights simply doesn’t achieve the goals that are most important to us: poverty reduction, sustainable development, and the creation of good jobs worldwide.”

Under the Jordan FTA, apparel exports to the United States increased by more than twenty-five-fold in just five years, from $43 million in 2000 to $1.083 billion in 2005. During the same period, the U.S. trade balance with Jordan swung from a surplus of $244 million to a deficit of $623 million. Foreign investment in the QIZs also boomed. And yet Jordanian workers received few of the new jobs generated, even though unemployment in Jordan remains over 15 percent. The foreign workers who got the majority of the new jobs created — mainly from Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines — were often lured to Jordan by unscrupulous labor brokers, then mistreated by their employers, sometimes in conditions approximating indentured servitude, the complaint charges.

“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,” Sweeney said. “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. We know we can do better, and we call on the Bush Administration to use all the tools at its disposal to ensure that Jordan reforms its labor laws and puts in place an effective labor inspection and enforcement system, with the full cooperation and participation of the Jordanian unions.”

The AFL-CIO and the NTA recognize and welcome the important steps taken by the Jordanian government in response to the allegations of worker rights violations. The Jordanian government has closed at least seven factories where abuses were occurring and has taken steps to improve the labor inspection regime. But Sweeney said those measures fall well short of what’s needed to correct the widespread abuses in Jordan.

“The Jordanian government must reform its labor laws, and thoroughly overhaul its inspection and enforcement system, Sweeney added. “Fines need to be at a level that companies take seriously, and the government needs to ensure that companies cannot evade such fines easily by declaring bankruptcy, leaving the country, or simply changing their corporate name.”

The complaint provides a constructive and clear set of benchmarks for both the U.S. government and the Jordanian government, in order to thoroughly address the extremely serious challenges faced by Jordanian and non-Jordanian workers today.

source: AFL-CIO