Posted August 17, 2004
Students Research Labor, Employment in
Jordan and the United States may be
on opposite sides of the world, but trade and labor issues
tie them together
|Third-year law students Pat Lavelle (far right)
and Gwen Seznec with Solidarity Center staff.
For law student Gwen Seznec, seeing a boy lug a heavy tire through
a mechanic's shop brought home the labor problems Jordan faces—high
unemployment, low wages, and an influx of legal foreign workers. Seznec
and fellow rising third-year Pat Lavelle began compiling information
from existing reports on the Mideast nation's adherence to international
core labor standards during the spring semester's International Human
Rights Law Clinic, and continued their work when the semester ended
by gathering first-hand accounts in Jordan for a report to be published
in December by the Solidarity Center, an NGO affiliated with the AFL-CIO
that also funded their trip.
"It was really important to go there to get real people to talk
to us—people who face problems every day," said Seznec,
who spent her first 10 years in the Middle East, including one year
in Jordan, because her father had business there.
"You sort of expect to find horrible conditions with regard to
labor standards and in a lot of cases that was true.…[but] it
really ended up being a dialogue," Lavelle said, particularly
when talking to government officials about the regulation of labor.
They assessed Jordan, like other countries the Solidarity Center has
reported on, according to adherence to standards such as prohibitions
against forced labor, progress on child labor, progress on reducing
discrimination, and the freedom of workers to associate and organize. "With
all of the standards, it's a work in progress," said Lavelle.
The reports, part of the Center's Justice For All country series, are
designed to inform U.S. policy and generally raise awareness among
the public. They focus on countries where the United States is trying
to increase trade, like Mexico and Sri Lanka.
|Even with the help of Egyptian
workers (on truck), farming is a tough business in Jordan, according
to this eggplant farmer (right).
With the help of a translator and Solidarity Center staff in Amman,
Seznec and Lavelle interviewed a variety of employees—construction
workers, hospital janitors, domestic workers, cement-factory engineers,
day laborers, farmers, and textile workers. They showed the pair there
were more nuanced issues than they thought, and it turned out to be
important to see what was happening in present-day Jordan. "It
does provide something real for me to grasp as I'm reading the reports….
Making the connection between people is the most important thing to
me," Seznec said. When you see a child carrying an enormous tire, "you
understand a little bit more, culturally, what the norms are for working,
and for human rights."
While child labor and abuses against foreign workers have been problems
for Jordan, Lavelle and Seznec found that in some ways their laws are
more stringent than those of the United States. So what's the problem?
"They have a great legal structure but not much in particular
in the way of enforcement or inspections," Seznec said. The pair
met the Ministry of Labor's head of the inspections department and
the head of the child labor unit, a relatively new group. The officials
acknowledged they don't have enough inspectors, but "when they
see violations, they fine companies," Lavelle said. "I got
the sense that given the resources they have, they're more genuine
about wanting to enforce labor violations than some agencies in the
United States, at least in some cases."
Jordan, they discovered, has a better family leave policy than the
United States, and with the passage of recent legislation, more protection
for domestic workers. "Looking at weaknesses of labor conditions
in Jordan gave me an opportunity to also recognize similar weaknesses
in labor legislation and conditions confronting workers in the United
States," Lavelle said, noting that protection for domestic workers
in the United States is inadequate. While Jordan is making strides
with domestic labor, government workers aren't officially allowed to
organize, and anti-union retaliation still runs strong.
Seznec met with a domestic worker who had positive experiences working
hourly with different customers, but told stories of other Sri Lankans
who faced horrendous conditions as live-in workers. Domestic workers
in Jordan are overwhelmingly foreign Sri Lankans or Filipinos because
domestic work is thought lowly, Seznec explained, due to the exploitation
and abuse they historically have faced.
"When they have a good situation in Jordan, it's quite good," Seznec
said, and workers can send money home or save for an eventual return
home. However, real problems arise when uneducated people come to Jordan,
need to learn the language, have no bargaining power, and don't realize
it's not right to get paid only at the end of their two-year contract,
she said. Some foreign domestic workers have been locked inside houses
or beaten, in effect being treated like slaves, Lavelle noted. Spurred
on by such reports, the United Nations Development Fund for Women worked
with Jordan's Ministry of Labor on a plan, implemented in 2003, requiring
domestic workers to be employed by a contract with a set salary and
regulating agents who recruit workers. The new law is not applied retroactively,
however, so many domestic workers are still unprotected.
|A family of Shi'a Muslims
from southern Iraq worked illegally for a Turkish construction
company near the Dead Sea.
On top of such historic hardships workers have faced in Jordan, the
war in Iraq has added to unemployment. A 2001 CIA estimate puts Jordan's
unemployment rate at 25 to 30 percent, but Seznec said that with the
war's impact the rate may be as high as 40 percent now. "Generally
business is slack because there's a war next door," she said.
Tourism has plummeted in the constitutional monarchy and Iraq no longer
provides subsidized oil to its neighbor, making gas prices skyrocket.
Some Iraqis have entered the country to find work, but they don't have
legal status and work permits, making them vulnerable to abusive situations.
Sometimes they are not paid at all for their work. Lavelle and Seznec
interviewed a family of Iraqis working alongside a road who told them, "take
our words and use them" in the report, Lavelle said. "They
made it clear that at least to them, that was pretty important."
|Children sold postcards in Jerash, Jordan.
Some of the students' experiences in Jordan revealed differences with
prior reports by groups such as Amnesty International. "There
was a little bit more of child labor than what was written in reports,
primarily because the economy was doing badly," Seznec said. Children
are under pressure to work, Lavelle added, because "families need
income for lack of sufficient wages." However, Seznec found that "in
some ways we saw more positive things in terms of women's rights than
the reports generally say." She spoke to several women happy with
their jobs and the respect they receive at work. "It was also
encouraging to see the strength of the unions in certain sectors," she
Some companies with factories in Jordan, such as Levi's and Victoria's
Secret, have corporate codes of conduct, although adherence and frequency
of inspections varies, Lavelle said. On the flip side, corporations
pressure factories to keep costs down. One factory manager confessed
he forced employees to work overtime if they didn't meet their daily
quota, Lavelle said, and he got the impression that happened frequently.
|Garment workers at this factory included
a mix of Jordanians and foreign workers.
Although the textile factories' conditions have improved, "It
seems that the U.S. Free Trade Agreement isn't as beneficial as people
hope it would have been," Seznec said. Business people in Jordan
understand that free trade is a positive step, but they're having difficulty
competing with countries like Bahrain and Morocco. Many Jordanian factories
are in Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), which require a specific
amount of the end product to be Israeli-made. But the factories will
probably find it too expensive to move out of the QIZs to be able to
take advantage of the terms of the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement.
|Egyptian workers served in the most dangerous
jobs at a stonecutter shop Lavelle and Seznec visited.
The trade agreements have provided job growth for Jordan, but employers
are importing workers from other countries—Bangladeshis, Sri
Lankans, and Chinese, among others—instead of hiring Jordanians. "A
lot of the worst violations happen with those imported populations
because they don't have much of a voice," Seznec said. Employers
pay a government fee for each worker to have a permit as well as paying
for foreign workers' food and lodging, all of which is viewed as cheaper
than hiring and training a Jordanian. There is a perception that "Jordanians
will not do certain types of work," Seznec said. At a stonecutter's
shop, Lavelle and Seznec were told the Egyptians were doing the most
dangerous work, while Jordanians had jobs that were less strenuous. "Jordanians
do hard work, but certain sectors are still very focused on foreign
workers doing the labor," Seznec said. "This is a problem
because a lot of Jordanians don't find work."
Frequently Egyptian workers will live in awful conditions voluntarily
to save money for when they return to their homeland. The Egyptian
guards of the office building in which Solidarity Center's Amman office
is located chose to live on their employer's roof in a makeshift home. "All
the Jordanians kept saying that [Egyptians] have it so good because
of the exchange rate," Seznec said. "And somehow that seems
to make it better." There are 145,000 registered foreign workers
in Jordan—2.5 percent of the 5 million-plus population.
|Palestinian workers "need work like
you wouldn't believe."
Seznec said the Palestinian Jordanians seemed to face particular hardships;
those they met seemed hungry, and "need to work like you wouldn't
believe." Displaced from the wars between Israelis and Palestinians
in 1948 or 1967, or descended from those refugees, they were frustrated
and—with their passports expired—desperate. "They
could not get a break," she said. "They are competing ferociously
with the Egyptians because they need the jobs too."
After returning to the United States, Lavelle worked for the Legal
Aid Society Employment Law Center in San Francisco, focusing on race
discrimination cases from the area and as far away as Pascagoula,
Mississippi, while Seznec spent the summer in New York City interning
for the firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, which specializes in international
arbitration and securities work.
Their Solidarity Center report will be available at www.solidaritycenter.org in
Reported by M. Wood
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