Photo Essay: Migrant Workers in Jordan’s Garment Industry

Over the past twenty years, Jordan has emerged as a critical node in the global apparel supply chain, which in Jordan employs more than 60,000 workers. Almost 70 percent of the kingdom’s garment employees are female foreign workers from South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Yet while the kingdom offers comparatively favorable labor laws for the region, many of these migrant workers are still legally and economically vulnerable.

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Migrant Workers in Jordan
A mix of foreign and Jordanian garment factory workers at the al-Hassan Qualifying Industrial Zone (QIZ).
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A South Asian worker at a garment factory in the al-Hassan QIZ.
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Women from South Asia account for the largest group of employees hired by Jordanian garment factories.
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At the entrance of the Galaxy apparel factory in the al-Hassan QIZ, a sign prohibits child labor.
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Two South Asian migrant workers use gym facilities at the al-Hassan Workers’ Service Center in Irbid. The center was established in 2014 by Better Work Jordan, overseen by a partnership between the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corporation.
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Children play at a new day care facility in the al-Dulayl QIZ, home to dozens of garment factories.
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Two Bangladeshi workers at the Rainbow Textiles factory in the al-Dulayl QIZ.
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A South Asian worker sews clothes at the Rainbow Textiles factory.
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A multilingual sign in English, Arabic, Hindi, Sinhala, and Bangla at the Rainbow Textile Factory.
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At the Rainbow Textiles factory, two South Asian workers check clothes for export.
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At the Needle Craft Limited factory a shipping box reads “Made in Jordan.”
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South Asian migrant laborers work on a line in a garment factory in Jordan.
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A Sri Lankan woman on break at a garment factory in Zarqa.
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At least 30 percent of all factory employees must be Jordanians, a particular boon for women in rural areas where job opportunities are scant.
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A Jordanian machine operator at the Apparel Concepts factory in Zarqa, Jordan.
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A convenience store in one QIZ sells items from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India.

King Abdullah II’s program of economic liberalization, which saw the expansion of international trade and the creation of special economic zones to promote export-led growth, has helped the garment industry flourish. Valued at $1.3 billion in U.S. exports, the Jordanian garment industry comprises approximately 20 percent of the country’s GDP. Housed in 14 Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs) throughout Jordan, more than 75 garment factories produce goods for global retailers. Garments manufactured in Jordan benefit from tariff-free entry to the U.S. market, a competitive trade advantage that makes Jordan an attractive destination for apparel manufacturing.

However, despite Jordan’s high unemployment rate (officially reaching 15.8 percent in 2016, with estimates of up to 28 percent among youth) and a mandate to draw 30 percent of its workforce from the national population, the garment industry has struggled to attract Jordanian workers. From 2011 to 2013, for example, Jordan’s apparel industry sought more than 19,000 workers to meet production demands, yet only received slightly more than 4,000 applications, according to a study from the National Center for Human Resources Development. Given this gap, Jordan has relied on foreign labor to sustain its garment sector.

Jordan offers a better deal to migrant laborers than other international destinations. Part of the reason that the kingdom has been successful in luring garment manufacturers is its better labor standards. In interviews in Irbid’s Al-Hassan QIZ, factory owners and workers lauded Jordan as an exemplar in the global apparel industry, guaranteeing workers stronger legal safeguards compared to Bangladesh or Vietnam, heavyweights in garment manufacturing. Jordan sets the minimum age at 16 years under the Labor Law and limits workdays to six hours or fewer for young workers. It also limits the number of work sites near hazardous environments and criminalizes forced and coercive labor. Jordan’s Labor Law further requires a consensual employment contract and enables workers to terminate employment with remuneration if the employer assaults the worker or changes the terms or nature of employment. Under Jordan’s Anti-Human Trafficking Law, the recruitment or exploitation of laborers through “intimidation, force, [and] violence” is explicitly prohibited, as is forcing a worker to engage in work outside the scope of his normal duties. Moreover, migrants are exempted from “unauthorized fees” in recruitment, a pivotal protection that curtails the widespread practice of overcharging migrant workers in origin countries.

This is in addition to Jordan’s obligations under its international legal commitments. In 2009, Jordan ratified the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which includes two anti-human trafficking protocols and is one of the world’s foremost documents to combat the smuggling of migrant workers across international borders. Jordan has also ratified the International Covenant on the Economic, Social, and Political Rights, Article 7 of which protects “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favorable conditions of work.” Article 6 pronounces that the worker has the right to freely choose his work, further solidifying Jordan’s responsibility to prevent human trafficking in the recruitment process of migrant workers. Furthermore, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights bans forced labor conditions.

In December 2015, with the help of the International Labor Organization (ILO), Jordan’s garment workers also successfully lobbied for a unified worker’s contract. “Many workers said that back in their country they sign employment contracts that include some rights like food, accommodation and health care, and when they arrive in Jordan factories’ management confiscate these contracts and then force them to sign different contracts with smaller wages than in the original,” said Diala al-Amiri, Deputy Executive Director of the Amman-based Tamkeen Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights. The new unified contract standardized workplace and hiring rules, minimizing the possibility of discrepancies in recruitment across different countries. Under the new document, it has become more difficult for employers to switch contracts or provide contracts in languages not understood by the migrant workers.

However, given the essentially precarious structure of migrant labor, protections on paper do not always translate into practical guarantees for many workers. Employer wage theft, forcible deportation, and unpaid overtime continue to persist as wider labor violations in factories, marring the kingdom’s reputation. Moreover, nearly half of all migrant workers complained of verbal abuse in the workplace, according to a 2013 Better Work Jordan report. In 2011, rape accusations roiled the Classic Fashion apparel factory in Jordan, leading U.S. retailers to cancel orders from the factory and potentially jeopardizing the country’s preferential trade status with the United States. Although factories submit to assessments by Better Work Jordan, a labor initiative under the partnership of the International Finance Corporation and International Labor Organization (ILO), labor abuses may continue unless retailers threaten to pull work orders.

Migrants are particularly vulnerable when it comes to their legal work status. For example, although Jordan’s migrant workers are not formally bound to a sponsor as they are under the controversial sponsorship (kafala) system in Gulf countries, Jordanian migrants remain legally vulnerable if they modify or terminate their employment prior to a contract end date, since residency and work permits hinge on employment status. This gives employers excessive powers over the worker, including the ability to declare a worker “illegal” to a police station, which may subsequently nominate the worker for deportation, according to Tamkeen’s al-Amiri.

Justice is also elusive if passports are confiscated. From 2013 to 2014, roughly 90 percent of foreign employees in Jordan’s Century Miracle factory had their passports seized, which is illegal under article 18 of Jordan’s passport law. This prohibits workers from leaving the country—an act that amounts to human trafficking, according to the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights. “Practically, the worker loses his right to practice a normal life without a passport because he cannot prove [his] identity, which deprives him of his legal personality and makes it difficult to resort to legal redress when demanding his rights,” added Tamkeen’s al-Amiri.

Under Jordan’s existing regulations concerning migrant labor, it is also not clear how workers can change employers. “The workers of QIZs are not allowed to transfer to any other field, and the employer is responsible for workers’ return home at the end or at legal termination of the employment contract,” added al-Amiri. Without a process for changing employers, Jordanian factories violate the International Covenant on the Economic, Social, and Political Rights.

Additional obstacles impede a worker’s ability to access legal protections: an absence of familiarity with a foreign legal system, a lack of reporting (or relying instead on legal systems in home countries where the rule of law is not protected), and a fear of deportation if self-reporting the lack of a passport or employment contract. And given that 90 percent of migrants in Jordan’s garment sector send remittances back home, most workers are reluctant to lose the income.

Similarly, debt bondage in the recruitment process makes migrant workers vulnerable to human trafficking. Under debt bondage, migrants repay recruitment fees in countries of origin through labor, often over an extended period of time and without a clear end date. Indian and Sri Lankan workers suffer disproportionately from extortionate recruitment fees in their countries of origin. In some cases, migrant workers sell property, hand over their life savings, or take out loans with the hope of recouping their losses after earning their first few paychecks overseas.

Although Jordan has enacted policies to prevent the undue collection of recruitment fees, migrants often arrive with significant debt, a circumstance that may be compounded in Jordan if garment factories fail to issue timely payments or provide adequate compensation. Many migrant workers are locked into situations of bonded labor and remain indebted to recruitment sub-agents in origin countries. To preclude this occurrence, workers in Jordan are required to sign a document, as are recruiters, saying they did not collect or pay fees to obtain a garment factory job. While this rule substantially reduces the presence of migrants experiencing bonded labor, Jordan’s guest workers still face the possibility of high recruitment fees prior to arrival, as many migrants are fearful of losing their job if a factory discovers they have violated a core hiring rule. Approximately half of the country’s garment factories fail to enforce Jordanian domestic policies on fair recruitment, according to a 2016 Better Work Jordan report.

For Jordan, enforcing such laws is a major challenge due to the globalized nature of the recruitment process. While Jordan has a commendable system of laws designed to protect workers, the kingdom cannot control practices that begin in a worker’s home country. Indeed, without support or pressure from sending countries or international retailers, it is unlikely that any host country can guarantee a worker’s rights on its own. Nevertheless, Jordan’s consistent strengthening of its legal framework seems to suggest that the political will exists to continue improving the working conditions for the migrant workers it hosts from around the world. Consequently, Jordan is likely to remain a preferred destination for migrants from around the world and a continued source of millions of dollars of remittances in the global economy.

This article originally appeared in The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Sada.

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