South Asian workers from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh working in Jordanian garment factories in Dhulail Industrial City. Courtesy: Rina Mukherji.

Despite Labour Laws, South Asian Workers Suffer in Jordan’s Billion Dollar Industries

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Unlike other countries in West Asia, Jordan lacks petrodollars. In 1996, an agreement with the US gave the country preferential duty-free and quota-free access to the American market. This was the first such agreement the US ever had with an Arab nation and saw the establishment of Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) – essentially, industrial zones created to service the export market. In 2000, a free trade agreement with the US furthered the relationship and also brought Jordan closer to Israel. As per the terms of the agreement, around 8% of the value addition for the products manufactured in the QIZs must come from Israel.

Today, garment exports earn Jordan upwards of $1.5 billion (as per 2015 figures), with earnings slated to further rise in 2016. Currently, there are 75 garment factories in Jordan’s five major QIZs, with 60,000 workers. Nearly 75% of the workforce here hails from South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Initially meant to provide employment to Jordanians, the rise of the garment industry opened doors for skilled labour from South Asia, even as many entrepreneurs from India, and later, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, found Jordan an ideal destination to invest in. In every QIZ factory, though, Jordanians must account for 20% of the labour force (a requirement that has recently been raised to 30%).

The modern factories nestled in beautifully designed industrial estates cater to a host of international brands – Victoria’s Secret, Ralph Lauren, Gap, Macy’s and the like – and manufacture knitwear, jeans and fashion apparel for the US market.

However, the lives of the migrant workers, generally hailing from the poorest regions of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, tell a different story about the dark reality of this billion dollar export industry. This is despite Jordan having some of the most enlightened labour laws in the world and having ratified and adhered to the norms of several major international conventions.

Jordan has ratified two core ILO conventions on forced labour – the Forced Labour Convention No. 29 of 1930 (C 29) and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention No. 105 of 1957 (C 105) –  in accordance with which Jordanian law prohibits employers from forcing workers to work under threat, fraud or coercion, or withholding their passports.  An infraction by employers invites a fine of 500-1,000 Jordanian dinars (JD) – approximately $700-1,400 – which is doubled for repeat offences. No employer can practice anti-union discrimination, including punishing a worker for or preventing him from taking part in union-related activity. If this happens or if a worker is unfairly dismissed, compensation can be sought by the worker through the labour court.

As per Jordanian law, every person recruited in his home country is entitled to return airfare, free food and accommodation from his employer. The recruiting agent is also paid by the employer for the necessary documentation, work and residence permits that are needed for the worker. The worker need make no payment at all. Jordan is strict about an eight-hour shift for workers. If any worker needs to do extra work during peak season, overtime has to be paid at 125% of the basic pay. Extra hours of work are only allowed with the worker’s written consent; between two shifts, 10 hours of rest must be allowed. If a worker is required to work on a Friday – which is the weekly holiday – she is entitled to overtime at 150% of basic pay.

The minimum age for work in Jordan is 16 years. Minor workers (those under 18 years of age) cannot be made to work beyond six hours a day and are entitled to an hour’s rest after every four hours of work.

Reality check

Notwithstanding Jordanian labour laws, many workers are around 16-17 years old when they travel to work in the country. Hailing from the interiors of India – from places as far apart as Ganjam in Odisha to eastern Uttar Pradesh, Nagerkoil in Tamil Nadu to Medak in Telangana – the workers are recruited by agents in Mumbai or Delhi. The amounts paid range from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1.84 lakhs. The payments are often not made to a single agency says Anil Kumar from Jaunpur, who was recruited as a helper. “I had to pay the person who recommended me to a sub-agency, and then the sub-agency who sent me over to the main agent. Thus, I ended up paying over Rs 1.5 lakhs.” For most, it means incurring a heavy debt which must be paid back in a year or so out of the money earned. Hence, few dare ever protest, lest they be sent back home. Workers like Suryanarayana Jana from Ganjam, who worked for four years at a Mumbai garments factory and saved up to pay his passage to Rs 30,000 to Jordan, are rare.

Unlike Jordanian workers, migrant labourers end up working a couple of hours every single day beyond their regular shift, with no overtime pay. “We all work until 6 pm every working day,” says Bhushanam, who belongs to Nizamabad in Telangana. Overtime is paid only when the worker spends time on the machine beyond the two extra hours put in daily. “It has to be a minimum of two full hours to be considered overtime; a single hour is not paid for,” he told The Wire. For many workers, the first six months are a grind, during which they work long hours every single day and have no weekly holidays. Srinivasa, a loader from Medak in Telangana, says, “I nearly worked 24 hours a day for the first six months. I would report for work at 7 am, and continued until well past midnight. I worked on all days, without availing the mandatory weekly holidays.  After a while, I realised I could not take it anymore; I refused to work overtime seven months ago. But my earnings have dropped drastically since then. I used to be paid 220 JD a month earlier. I only earn 110 JD now (approximately Rs 10,000).”

India and Pakistan do not allow women to come to Jordan as unskilled or low-skilled labour. The demand is met with Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan women. A 2010 strike and media exposé of how female workers were sexually and physically exploited by middle-level managers at the Indian-owned Classic Apparel and made to live in dirty, overcrowded dormitories, saw buyers adopt a zero tolerance policy towards worker exploitation. This has seen working conditions improve significantly, although there is still a long way to go.

The accommodation in dormitories, as per local law, needs to meet certain standards, wherein washing machines, clotheslines and heaters must be made available. Dormitories have to be comfortable, with clean toilets. Besides, every worker is entitled to social security, wholesome meals as well as medical and healthcare benefits.

In actual fact, these rules continue to be flouted. In addition to long working hours, even visits to the toilet are monitored. Tailor-turned-machine operator Zahid Ali and garment cutters Indrajit Rajbhar and Anil Yadav say, “We are allowed to visit the toilet only thrice in 12 hours. We cannot be away from work for more than a few minutes.”  However, “workers today are housed 6-8 persons per dormitory. Prior to 2010, there would be 20 workers per dormitory,” General Trade Union of Workers in Textile, Garment & Clothing Industries (GTUW) representative and organiser Arshad Ali says.

He adds, “To protect the rights of the Indian worker, India does not allow any worker to leave his home country unless he has a written contract that specifies his basic salary to be 150 JD. Employers, though, claim to be spending more than 40 JD on providing food and accommodation to the migrant workers. Thus, the tripartite collective agreement – between the garment workers union, exporters and factory owners has settled for 110 JD.”

Jordan’s labour ministry has made it clear that workers will have to be given a single agreement, which shall be made available in Arabic and the worker’s native language. Wily recruiting agents in India, though, take advantage of the workers being uninformed of their rights and not knowing Arabic. For instance, Rambachan Yadav, who belongs to Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, was given a contract in Arabic when he left India and verbally promised a salary of 150 JD (approx Rs 14,200). Once in Jordan, however, he received the Hindi version of his contract, which clearly stated that he would receive only 110 JD as salary. By then, it was too late for him to turn away from the job.

Sponsorship and exploitation

At the heart of this exploitation is the sponsorship or kafala system. A worker comes to Jordan on the strength of a sponsor, in this case, his employer. The employer is responsible for the worker’s well-being, his residency and work permits. A worker cannot leave his job unless his employer permits him to. In the case of a factory shutting down, workers can get transferred to another unit. But in case the work and residency permits are not renewed, the worker gets fined for overstay.

Since the factories manufacture for the export market, dissatisfied buyers or the flouting rules and quality standards can spell the death knell for suppliers. In the case of Galaxy, the dissatisfaction of a US buyer led to all orders drying up. Consequently, workers recruited from India are stuck on the premises. They would prefer to return, but are being denied the fare to go back. “We have had no work for the past two months and hence have received no salaries,” the workers say.  Mender Kamalaprasad of Azamgarh has an additional problem to worry about. His wife is very ill, with no one to look after her. “My passport will expire by July 16. This will make my presence here illegal.”

Perhaps the active involvement of the Indian embassy with the workers could ease matters. Unfortunately, the Indian embassy has no labour attaché to look after the needs of Indian workers. Hemant Negi, who heads the consular section, also looks into the problems of migrant labourers, as and when they arise. “We have a helpline, which anyone can use to contact us. We pay a visit only if there is a problem,” says Negi. Regular inspections are never done, the embassy admits: “There are too many factories; it is impossible to visit them all. Ours is a small establishment, we do not have the manpower.”

The workers complain of utter indifference by the Indian embassy “even when a problem arises”. Arshad Ali agrees with the workers, “I have been here ever since the QIZs were set up, and have never seen anyone from the Indian embassy ever paying a visit. The Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan officials are not regular either, but they do visit when there is a problem.” While there is utter indifference towards the plight of Indian workers at the embassy level in Jordan, there is little monitoring of recruiting agencies at the Indian end either.

Initiatives to help workers

Matters have begun to look up of late, though, thanks to the efforts of the GTUW, especially its organiser Arshad Ali, who has strived to ensure a fair deal for South Asian workers. The labour ministry has also introduced amendments wherein migrant workers can join the GTUW, though they cannot organise a union.  Not many Indian workers know of the union, though, or their right to redressal, although half a dinar each is automatically deducted from their salaries towards union membership.

The ministry has also introduced a so-called ‘Golden List’, wherein factories that adhere to labour norms will be rewarded with tax incentives and the waiver of bank guarantee.

Better Work Jordan (BWJ), a joint initiative of the ILO and the International Finance Corporation, was set up in 2008 and has been trying to improve conditions in QIZ factories. Initially aimed at voluntary enrolment of factories, the BWJ programme – launched in 2009 – has seen 19% compliance of factories in matters of coercion and 4% compliance on bonded labour issues. There has also been some improvement in the payment of salaries, occupational safety and health, as per an independent evaluation done in 2013 and the 7th Compliance Synthesis Report of the BWJ. But where timely payment of wages, overtime and hours of work are concerned, BWJ concedes, there continues to be high non-compliance and little transparency. Bullying and  harassment of workers is particularly the norm during the peak season. BWJ also found 53 factories with dysfunctional emergency alarms. In matters of recruitment and contracts,  there were major problems regarding translations of contracts given to workers and the high unauthorised recruitment fees collected by recruitment agencies back home in South Asia.

This year, a new two-year collective bargaining agreement was negotiated for the garment sector with the support of BWJ. The contract was in furtherance of the sector-wide collective bargaining agreement signed in 2013 between the Jordan Garments, Accessories & Textiles Exporters Association, the Association of Owners of Factories, Workshops and Garments and GTUW.

In 2015, BWJ set up a workers’ centre in Al-Hassan Industrial City, Irbid, with contributions from buyers and some factory owners. The centre, run by the ILO, has gymnasium and dance facilities, a computer centre, a café and English classes that workers can avail of. FAIR, a pilot project aimed at fair recruitment of workers, is currently being put into effect by BWJ with the government of Nepal. At the moment, BWJ is engaged in negotiations with the Jordanian ministry of health to improve hygiene levels in dormitories, “since it is their mandate,” as  Tareq Abu Qaoud, programme manager at BWJ says.

For an industry that aspires to grow, it is essential that every stakeholder flourishes. Satisfied workers have already brought in increased business and an 11% increase in capacity utilisation in factories enrolled in the BWJ programme, as a recent survey has shown.

At the same time, South Asian governments – particularly India – need to wake up to the fact that labour-exporting countries also benefit from the remittances sent by their migrant labourers abroad. It is high time this is acknowledged through a strengthening of our missions to tackle the problems faced by Indian nationals who want to earn a honest living abroad.

(Originally published in The Wire, India.)

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