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Rape case draws attention to concerns about abuses in Jordan's garment industry
IRBID, Jordan (AP) ' After a garment factory worker told Jordanian police she had been raped three times by her boss, the case escalated into an international campaign that threatens to close down Jordan's largest garment exporter to the U.S.
It could also force government and business to do more to improve conditions in an industry that has been crucial to this kingdom's economy ' and to its relations with the United States.
The 27-year-old Bangladeshi seamstress who had worked four months at the Classic Fashion plant brought her allegations to Jordanian police in June. She claimed that her Sri Lankan manager, Anil Santha, raped her twice in March and once on May 16 in a scruffy hotel room in downtown Irbid, a city near the Syrian border.
Santha, 46, has been charged with rape by Jordanian prosecutors and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. He denies the allegations.
Classic, with annual exports of $125 million, is Jordan's largest garment exporter to the U.S., producing a Hanes line sold at Target and other clothing for giant U.S. retailers including Wal-Mart, Macy's, Kohl's and Lands' End.
Jordan's Trade Ministry figures show that Classic's exports accounted for nearly 13 percent of Jordan's $1 billion garment exports to the United States last year. Overall, garment exports make up roughly 20 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a U.S. watchdog that helped the woman report the rape, says that abuses are rampant at the factory, which employees some 4,900 workers, most of them women from South Asia. Victims are usually too afraid to report abuse, the institute said.
Workers at the Classic factory outside Irbid appeared fearful during a recent visit by an Associated Press reporter.
Managers allowed the reporter in and lined up six roommates of the woman who reported the rape for interviews in a small cubicle. Two factory inspectors kept peeking through the cubicle's windows, and the women constantly looked over their shoulders at the inspectors. Only two were willing to answer questions, and they trembled as they spoke.
"She was a good woman, whose family was poor and in need of money," said Mosamoth Sheifali, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi who shared a dormitory room with the woman who reported the rape. The Associated Press does not report the names of rape victims.
Sheifali added: "I never mingled with her because she kept to herself."
"I don't know why she said bad things about sir Santha," said another Bangladeshi roommate, Cumilla, 28.
"He is a good man," she added, giving only her first name.
Santha, a medium-built, soft-spoken father of two, also spoke to the AP.
"I'm innocent and I've never seen this girl until the day she complained to police," he said, pointing his finger in anger, his voice cracking.
The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights said Santha's accuser is not giving interviews.
The labor rights watchdog says at least 300 young workers have been raped by Classic managers since 2007. It also accuses managers of beating workers, forcing them to work long shifts with few breaks, refusing to pay their salaries and intimidating the women into silence by threatening to have them deported.
Sanal Kumar, Classic's managing director, denied the charges and accused U.S. labor unions of being behind them.
"They want to see all those plants abroad move to the United States to provide jobs to the Americans," he said.
He also blamed Israel, saying its supporters had influenced the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.
Companies like Classic have their roots in a project launched in the 1990s to boost peace with Israel by allowing duty-free exports to the United States to factories in Jordan that used a certain proportion of Israeli inputs. Kumar said Israel is angry that many factories largely abandoned the Israel connection after duty-free eligibility was broadened in Jordan.
The labor rights institute said Kumar's accusations were "nonsense."
Days after news of the rape allegations emerged, U.S. retailers Kohl's, Macy's and Lands' End stopped placing orders from Classic, Kumar said. He said within four weeks, Classic's losses reached $10 million, or 8 percent of its annual exports.
"If these three or my other customers walk away permanently, we're gone," Kumar said.
U.S. retailers did not answer repeated AP emails and telephone calls requesting comment.
An online petition campaign launched since the rape charges emerged, so far signed by 2,000 Americans, is demanding protection for foreign workers in Jordan, the removal of abusive factory managers and compensation for women raped on the job.
"It is absolutely unacceptable for widespread rape allegations to go unaddressed," said Amanda Kloer, editor of Change.org, which is organizing the petition. "This campaign is an example of consumers' power to protect women's rights."
In the past 10 years, the Geneva-based International Labor Organization said in successive reports that foreign workers in Jordan's industrial compounds faced "serious abuses," like human trafficking, forced labor, long working hours without pay. The ILO has been working with the Jordanian government to help prevent abuse, helping amend the labor code and developing a training program for inspectors to check on working conditions.
Labor Ministry Undersecretary Khleif Khawaldeh said there may have been "some deficiencies in our labor regulations and practices, but we're continuously seeking to improve them."
He said surprise inspections have been conducted at Classic and other factories.
Jordanians are worried the Classic case will encourage American businesses to shun output from Jordan.
"Why should the Jordanian industry bear the brunt of such actions by a foreign factory manager?" asked Samir Maqdah, a union leader assisting the factories. He said if the manager is guilty, he should be punished.
On the Web:
Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights: http://www.globallabourrights.org/
Platform for social change: www.Change.org
Classic Fashion: www.classicfashionapparel.com
Jordan Industrial Estates Corporation: www.jiec.com
Halaby can be reached at: http://facebook.com/jjhalaby