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Social dialogue

More rights for Jordan’s garment workers

Workers in Jordan’s Qualified Industrial Zones have held numerous strikes over the past years to protest against what they perceive as labour rights violations. A new collective bargaining agreement is now aiming to improve the situation.

Feature | 01 November 2013
Nour Jihan, from Bangladesh
SAHAB, Jordania (ILO News) – Twenty-four year old Bangladeshi Nour Jihan moved to Jordan a year ago to work in a clothing factory in the industrial city of Sahab. Her employer provides food and board, which allows her to send about USD150 back home to her family.

“I’ve worked in several countries, but last year I heard that many women from my country were moving to Jordan for work so I decided to do the same,” she said, adding that she started to look for work abroad after her father died. “I had to help my mother take care of my seven siblings.”

Jihan is one of about 40,000 mostly South Asian workers employed in Jordan’s garment manufacturing sector, whose exports last year reached a record USD1.2 billion.

But while business has boomed across Jordan’s Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), relations between workers and factory bosses have often broken down. QIZs are special areas that manufacture goods for sale in foreign markets. There are 14 in the country.

Over recent years, QIZ workers have held numerous strikes to protest against what they perceive as labour rights violations, low wages, and poor working and living conditions.

In response, a collective bargaining agreement was signed in May this year between two apparel employers’ associations and Jordan’s union of garment factory workers. The agreement was widely viewed as an unprecedented step forward in the enhancement of social dialogue and industrial relations within the sector.

The agreement between the Jordan Garments, Accessories and Textiles Exporters’ Association, the Association of Owners of Factories, Workshops and Garments, and the General Trade Union of Workers in Textile, Garment and Clothing Industries was facilitated by Better Work Jordan (BWJ) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Collective Bargaining in Jordan's Ready Made Garment Sector

It aims to provide workers like Jihan with better representation and improve their working and living conditions. Even though the majority of employees in the apparel sector are migrants, the agreement also covers the thousands of Jordanian men and women who work beside them. It may also help to attract more young Jordanians to the sector.

This hard-fought deal also strives to enhance productivity and ensure that the interests of both workers and employers are met.

‘’The agreement did not come about easily. It is a result of years of work and negotiations between workers, employers and the government to ensure that all sides are happy,’’ said Farhan Afram, the Vice President of the Jordan Garments, Accessories & Textile Exporters’ Association.

Better working environment

The agreement outlines what workers are entitled to in terms of wages, benefits, working hours, issues of occupational health and safety both at factories and dorms. It promotes equal treatment of all workers and aims to foster a more positive working environment that will boost morale and productivity.

While some of these provisions were already established in the sector, others have been only recently introduced, such as the rights of unions to exist and to access factories; annual seniority bonuses for all workers regardless of their nationalities; settlement mechanisms to deal with contract disputes, and the creation of a unified contract for all workers. The ILO is assisting in this last issue by drafting the model of a unified contract for migrant workers that meets ILO standards.

We have begun to look at ways to improve social dialogue at the sectoral level, by working with both parties"
Better Work Jordan - a joint initiative between the ILO and the International Finance Corporation in Jordan - trained both garment unions and employers from 19 factories on how to prepare for collective bargaining negotiations.

‘’One of the aspects of our work is that once we identify issues of concern in each factory, we encourage that a labour-management committee be created to implement an improvement plan,” explained BWJ Programme Manager Philip Fishman.

“Now that there is a greater movement towards social dialogue at the factory level, we have begun to look at ways to improve social dialogue at the sectoral level, by working with both parties.”

Understanding collective bargaining

BWJ brought in experts from the ILO to work with the union and employers in an effort to help them understand what the collective bargaining process entailed, how they could present their interest effectively and how this could be a win-win situation for all.

“This was instrumental not only in reducing resistance to the possibility of a sectorial agreement, but also giving them knowledge and creating an atmosphere, which could be beneficial to both sides,” said Fishman.

ILO experts also reviewed the contract language to make sure it was compatible with core labour standards.

One of the most important aspects of the collective bargaining agreement is that it gives the union the right to access garment factories.

‘’The importance of this agreement is that it allows the union to have access to the workers in the factory and the representation of all workers in an appropriate and healthy manner. This was not the case in the past,’’ said Mervat Abed Al Kareem Al Jamhawi, of the General Trade Union of Workers in Textile, Garment and Clothing.

Because this agreement is legally binding, everyone must comply"
‘’It allows us to enter factories, talk to workers, form committees, conduct elections, provide workers with posters and brochures that explain to them their rights and responsibilities, in terms of labour laws, social security, and to deal with their enquiries,” he said, adding that these mechanisms will help reduce the incidence of industrial action, such as strikes.

While Al Jamhawi said some factories have seemed more reluctant than others to implement their part of agreement, a number of areas related to wages and dormitory standards are being worked on.

‘’Because this agreement is legally binding, everyone must comply. But we still need help from Better Work Jordan, the Ministry of Labour and employer associations to make sure that the factories are complying, for example through labour inspections.”

Ifram, from the Jordan Garments, Accessories & Textile Exporters’ Association, is confident more employers will warm to the agreement once they realize its benefits for the sector in the long run.

“The collective bargaining agreement is good for the garment sector because it will help to retain workers. A stable workforce enables factories to expand, to meet new demands for the American market, to increase their volume of production, and to plan for a more ambitious future,” he explained.

Fishman of the BWJ programme said the ILO would continue to provide support and training to both parties on ways to improve and build mechanisms to implement the agreement.

‘‘For now the agreement is only a piece of paper,” he said. “The next step is how to make it a reality and how to collaborate to make it work.’’