Amman Rich Hall and Shira Qatarneh from the Jordan Solidarity Center allowed me to ride along with them as they went up to Irbid to visit with their local staff member working with the Jordan Textile Workers and assisting in organizing in the QIZ — which is the local handle for the special industrial zone in Jordan.
The union’s office was along the customary lines with a big meeting area in a square with chairs all around it. Downstairs was different though. There the union had a clinic funded by the Japanese. We met with the very pleasant and competent doctor who runs the operation (which also includes a dentist!). They have contracts with the union on referrals and with almost two dozen factories to provide basic physicals and health screenings. It was quite an operation. They see about 20 workers a day, and obviously this sends a message about the union as well!
The union has about 2000 members around the QIZ in Irbid in the northern part of Jordan. We visited several of the plants, both of which were run by Century Investments, a Jordanian company. The first made suits for a brand called Strattford with a workforce that was 80% Jordanian. The second was a huge operation with 2300 workers and contracts with Calvin Klein and other name brands from the States. The workforce was 100% Jordanian according to the general manager, a thoughtful and affable gentleman named Nadim Asa’d. They made women’s underwear for Calvin Klein — about 2.5 million pieces a year, which is a lot of “u-dubs!” The workforce was mostly women, as is common in textiles.
Both companies were union. In fact the 2nd plant even had a certificate from the union in the reception room. Both claimed their turnover was relatively small for this industry, and that they ran a very culturally sensitive, family oriented operation.
Part of the reason that this was interesting is that there were worker dormitories in the QIZ, which housed Sri Lankan, Bengali, and Chinese workers. Workers who were being transported here (and to other QIZ’s in Jordan) by the sourcing company owners on three year contracts with wildly exploitative conditions. Foreign workers are also barred, as you remember from the posting a couple of days ago, from union membership, though that has not stopped the textile workers from trying to organize them elsewhere in Jordan. We went by one of the dormitories and were quickly chased away by the military.
One question Brother Hall pushed determinedly to the plant manager was why they did not do more to limit the importation of workers, especially given the high unemployment rates in the country. Asa’d argued for a country wide “QIZ” that would allow plants to move closer to the workers, rather than the other way around. He had several interesting ideas for dealing with the situation.
These problems though are just hard. Textile work is moving around the world to get closer to the workers who will work for the least wages and the countries that will look away while it all happens. The race for the bottom may stop in Turkey and Jordan and elsewhere, but they are not finished running.
Building unions here is part of the shifting sand in the desert. Hopefully, the base can get set and locked into the right direction to make a difference for the future, because the passion is there, if the plan can follow.
October 3, 2006