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World Bank Woos Western Corporations to Profit From Labor of Stranded Syrian Refugees

We should be wary of the World Bank’s private enterprise solution to a humanitarian crisis.

Syrian refugees gather around a fire in a refugee camp in Sanliurfa, Turkey, on October 25, 2015. (Photo: Orlok /

Under the guise of humanitarian aid, the World Bank is enticing Western companies to launch “new investments” in Jordan in order to profit from the labor of standed Syrian refugees. In a country where migrant workers have faced forced servitude, torture and wage theft, there is reason to be concerned that this capital-intensive “solution” to the mounting crisis of displacement will establish sweatshops that specifically target war refugees for hyper-exploitation.

The World Bank is invoking the destruction of war in justifying its proposal. In a devastating quarterly report released last month, the World Bank described a Middle East whose economies have been ravaged by armed conflict. The financial institution put total losses due to the “war in Syria and spillovers to the neighboring five countries” near $35 billion in “output,” noting staggering levels of damage to physical objects and human beings. As a result, the world is now facing the “biggest forced displacement crisis since World War II,” the report warns, determining the immediate outlook for the region to be “cautiously pessimistic.”

Amid mounting warnings of large-scale social harm, the World Bank is pursuing its own solutions, issuing a press statement just weeks after its dire quarterly report in which it declared “support to the Middle East and North Africa will amount to US $20 billion in the next five years.” While the announcement was short on details, one specific example of this help should raise profound concern.

“Prime Minister David Cameron, His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan and I began discussing, in September, how best to create jobs for both Jordanians and Syrian refugees,” said World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim in the release. “We are exploring the creation of special economic zones (SEZs), and encouraging investments in municipal projects and labor-intensive work.”

After numerous efforts to obtain more information from the World Bank about the proposal, as well as interviews with workers’ rights advocates in the US and Jordan, this author believes these SEZs are at risk of becoming severe human rights violation zones. Jordan already has numerous special economic zones under different names, and their history is mired in the miseries associated with sweatshops: human trafficking, torture and wage theft of migrant workers, often in the service of US companies.

The world should be closely watching the World Bank’s plan in Jordan, not only because the country’s Syrian refugees deserve real humanitarian solutions, but also because the financial institution’s economic model has global implications. At a time of mass human displacement from ongoing wars, we should be asking hard questions about the political implications of encouraging Western companies to target and profit from the labor of people violently uprooted from their homes.

Throwing Capital Investments at a Humanitarian Crisis

While Europe’s refugee crisis is grabbing global headlines, displaced people are most concentrated in the Middle East, with 95 percent of people externally uprooted from Syria now residing in the nearby countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. In Jordan alone, Syrian refugees now number more than 1.4 million according to some estimates – well over a tenth of the population – in addition to more 2 million registered refugees from Palestine, some freshly displaced from Syria, and tens of thousands of people from Iraq.

Those forced to flee their homes live in cities and towns across the country, as well as crowded refugee camps in the northern and eastern parts of Jordan. Amnesty International warned in December that, due to mounting border restrictions, thousands of Syrian refugees are trapped in a “no-man’s land” on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria, subject to “desperate, freezing” conditions. One satellite image from December 8 shows nearly 1,500 makeshift shelters housing people stranded in the remote border zone of Rukban.

A Syrian woman identified as Warde recently described being trapped in one of these border zones for a month during 2015: “We stayed in the dirt…It was terrible…We made our own tents with our blankets – we would sew them together…as protection against the sun and the wind.”

The World Bank says its private enterprise solution will help alleviate such hardship, but is offering little information about what exactly its SEZs will entail. According to the institution’s materials, it is in consultation with the government of Jordan and the UK’s Department for International Development to establish five SEZs in Mafreq, Erbid, Moaqer, Karak and Maan, many located close to the Syrian border. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the financing arm of the World Bank, is also involved in the plan.

Lara Saade, a spokesperson for the World Bank, was explicit about the goal of wooing foreign investors, telling AlterNet that “significant tax and duty incentives for the import of raw materials and equipment are already on offer,” including a 5 percent corporate tax for sales in Jordan and 0 percent for exports. She added that a “number of bilaterals, notably the British, are actively encouraging firms to invest,” claiming that local companies have also shown interest.

The spokesperson said that the program will focus on employing both Syrians and Jordanians, but it was not clear in what proportion. When asked whether there will be any mechanisms in place to protect workers’ rights in these labor-intensive zones, Saade answered: “Formal workers’ rights are generally well protected in Jordan. All refugees working in the zones will be formal workers.”

The initiative, she said, is an example of how “we are using a holistic approach to addressing the refugee influx through private sector development.”

But Scott Nova, the executive director of the independent labor monitoring group Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), told AlterNet he is skeptical of this model. “The real issue is, does it make sense to try to address economic development challenges by incentivizing countries to offer the cheapest labor and weakest regulation to entice retailers in Europe and the US to relocate production? That is a strategy the World Bank has long been fond of.”

“The Guards Used to Beat Us Up With Broomsticks”

One only has to look at Jordan’s numerous SEZs to evaluate whether workers’ rights are being adequately safeguarded. As a reward for normalizing the Israeli occupation of Palestine, former president Bill Clinton oversaw the establishmentof Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs) in 1996, enabling Egypt and Jordan to “export products to the United States duty-free, as long as these products contain inputs from Israel.” Such status is no small matter, as even the major textile exporting country of Bangladesh is not granted duty-free exports to the United States. The agreement helped launch Jordan’s significant garment industry, with many QIZs eventually transforming into large industrial parks.

The US-Jordan Free Trade Agreement (FTA), signed in 2001, expanded this liberalization by slashing barriers to bilateral trade in nearly every single industrial and agricultural sector. According to a US analysis a decade after implementation, the initial QIZs remained powerful manufacturing centers, but thanks to the FTA, goods were being exported beyond those zones as well.

In a damning report released in May 2006, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights concluded that, just years after the deal was established, the US-Jordan FTA and the QIZ framework had descended into a nightmare of “human trafficking and involuntary servitude.” Of the estimated 48,000 QIZ workers at the time, roughly 25,000 of them were guest workers primarily hailing from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia and Egypt. American companies were intimately involved in these abuses.

In a harrowing 168 pages, the report describes human trafficking, torture, wage theft and widespread denial of the right to collectively organize. At the Al-Shahaed Apparel and Textile factory, a supplier for Walmart and K-Mart located in the Al-Hassan QIZ, Bangladeshi workers described having their passports taken, held as indentured servants and forced to work mandatory 38- to 72-hour shifts while some were paid as little as one cent an hour.

“We were subjected to punishment when we wanted more food,” testified one worker, identified as Mr. Nasir. “The guards used to beat us up with broomsticks. Sometimes they used to force us to stand naked in an air-conditioned room in severe cold.”

These abuses persisted despite language in the U.S-Jordan FTA that ostensibly mandated labor protections, earning the praise of then-AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. According to all available evidence, widespread mistreatment of workers continues to the present day.

Linda Al-Kalash, the director of the Jordanian organization Tamkeen Fields for Aid, which combats discrimination, trafficking and human rights violations, told AlterNet over the phone that labor protections included in domestic laws and free trade agreements don’t mean anything if they are not enforced. “Our problem is with implementation and regulation. This problem includes implementation from employers and from the ministry of labor.”

As recently as 2013, the WRC warned of severe violations at an Al-Hassan factory that does business with the VF corporation, a US-based transnational apparel company. In one incident, “a company supervisor directed Jordanian workers to beat four Burmese workers, all of them women, for refusing to come to work during a strike,” the WRC said.

Even the US State Department admitted in a 2015 report that numerous domestic migrant workers in Jordan’s garment industry continue to “experience forced labor,” with employers often granted immunity for severe human rights abuses. As recently as last month, Jordanian government authorities said they were investigating fresh reports of human trafficking at a garment factory in Al-Hassan.

Mervat Jumhawy, who works for a general trade union in the textile industry in Al-Hassan, told AlterNet that migrant workers continue to face poor conditions, including dormitories that are “not suitable for humans,” and in some cases, employers who seize their passports.

When pressed on these concerns, Saade pointed AlterNet to Better Work-Jordan, a joint program of the International Labor Organization and IFC, which she said had a “good track record” on protecting workers’ rights.

However, Nova had a different take. “Better Work has no enforcement power, so serious labor rights abuses often continue for years in factories covered by the program,” he said. “In Jordan, Better Work does not even publicly disclose its findings, which might generate at least some pressure on brands and factories to end violations.”

Capital Crosses Borders, People Shut Out

“It is easy for employers to exploit Syrian refugees’ rights, and it is difficult for those refugees to file a complaint against their employer,” said Al-Kalash, whose organization will soon publish a study based on interviews with 250 male Syrian refugees. According to the unreleased report, 80 percent of the men interviewed don’t have labor permits, 50 percent earn well below minimum wage and 100 percent have no medical insurance. A separate study based on Syrian women is forthcoming.

“The migrants and refugees are a vulnerable group. We need to know more about the new investments in Jordan,” Al-Kalash added, referencing the World Bank proposal. “We need to know if the refugees will have access to justice. We need to know about workers’ rights.”

Shawna Bader-Blau, the executive director of the AFL-CIO-allied Solidarity Center, told AlterNet she agrees. “People have been displaced by war, and they need jobs. But it is an obligation of states to not just provide jobs, but to make sure they are good jobs.”

While the World Bank is not being forthcoming about which companies or industries will be involved in the new investments, the example of the country’s garment industry is cause for concern.

“The global garment industry does not have a good track record, especially in special economic zones,” Bader-Blau added. “And the Jordanian government has no good track record to ensure that rights at work are protected, that dormitories have decent conditions for workers. I’d say that any temporary job program for migrants, either refugees from war or other migrants, is susceptible to exploitation absent guaranteed rights to freely form a union and collectively bargain and actively practice those rights.”

Such rights are not fully guaranteed in Jordan.

Jumhawy, on the other hand, said she is more concerned about the welfare of Syrians employed outside of the SEZs. “I am much more worried about Syrian refugees that are working in the construction and agricultural industries than those working in the industrial zones,” she said. “It is more concerning because they are all over the place geographically and harder to monitor.”

Within the SEZs, Jumhawy believes Syrians refugees could face relative privilege over migrant workers from South Asia or Asia, and even potentially contribute to the latter’s displacement.

Any divisions between war refugees and economic migrants, as well as ordinary Jordanians, must be avoided at all costs, Al-Kalash cautioned, emphasizing that the aim is to “protect everyone’s rights.”

The World Bank has given no meaningful public indication that it will heed Al-Kalash’s call. Meanwhile, from Haiti to Honduras to Gaza, there is no shortage of examples in which such free trade solutions to human-made crises descend into humanitarian disasters. The Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein coined the term “disaster capitalism” to denote the economic policies embraced by the World Bank and other global bodies, states and corporations, in which human rights crises serve as a pretext to clear the way for a ruthless race to the bottom for all but the ultra-wealthy.

But the World Bank program also raises deeper questions about the global responsibility to address the large-scale human harm the West played a role in unleashing. Human rights organizations, social movements and large numbers of refugees are calling on the United States and Europe to open their borders and welcome the ever-growing numbers of displaced people. So far those voices have met fierce resistance from states, with the US welcoming in less than 2,000 Syrian refugees and countries across the European Union slamming their borders shut. Unlike people, weapons and capital easily traverse borders.

Myriam Francois, a journalist and research associate at SOAS, University of London, told AlterNet that the SEZ proposals are “less about Syrian needs and more about keeping Syrian refugees out of Europe by creating (barely) sustainable conditions within the camps which would then make claims to asylum much harder to recognize.” What’s more, she added that “these zones will change refugee camps from emergency and temporary responses to a crisis, to much more permanent settlements.”

Will these capital-intensive solutions be more tools for the powerful countries running the World Bank to contain the refugee crisis from afar and wash their hands of their fundamental duty to address the harm they have done throughout the region? And which companies are angling to turn a profit from those forced to flee large-scale destruction in Syria?

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