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Victoria's Secret, Slave Labor And So-Called "Free Trade"

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When you slip on your Victoria's Secret garb, remember this: it comes to you partly due to the wonders of so-called "free trade." And, in particular, that little Victoria Secret garment (I guess "little" is redundant in this context) may even hail from Jordan--which was supposed to be the poster child for how one forges the "right" kind of so-called "free trade" deal. But, instead, Victoria Secret exposes the exact fallacy of so-called "free trade."

My friends at the National Labor Committee have just released a report on some appalling conditions at Victoria Secret production facilities in Jordan:

D.K. Garments is a subcontract factory with 150 foreign guest workers (135 from Bangladesh and 15 from Sri Lanka), which has been producing Victoria's Secret garments for the last year. None of the workers have been provided their necessary residency permits, without which they cannot venture outside the industrial park without fear of being stopped by the police and perhaps imprisoned for lack of proper documents.

The Victoria's Secret workers toil 14 to 15 hours a day, from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., seven days a week, receiving on average one day off every three or four months. All overtime is mandatory, and workers are routinely at the factory 98 to 105 hours a week while toiling 89 to 96 hours. Treatment is very rough, as managers and supervisors scream at the foreign guest workers to move faster to complete their high production goals.

Workers who fall behind on their production goals, or who make even a minor error, can be slapped and beaten. Despite being forced to work five or more overtime hours a day, the workers are routinely shortchanged on their legal overtime pay, being cheated of up to $18.48 each week in wages due them. While this might not seem like a great deal of money, to these poor workers it is the equivalent of losing three regular days' wages each week.

Workers are allowed just 3.3 minutes to sew each $14 Victoria's Secret women's bikini, for which they are paid four cents. The workers' wages amount to less than 3/10ths of one percent of the $14 retail price of the Victoria's Secret bikini

And when workers protested a speed up demand? Management had six of the workers arrested. A strike is under way:

The workers begged management to free their unjustly imprisoned friends and co-workers. Management refused and the workers stopped working at 10:30 a.m. on November 12. The strike continues. The owner of the factory is now threatening to have all the guest workers forcibly deported back to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The owner says food and water will be cut off and following that, the workers will be forcibly removed from the dorms.

The workers paid anywhere from $1,500 to over $3,000 to purchase three-year work contracts in Jordan--an enormous amount of money in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Workers had to go deeply into debt, borrowing the money on the informal market, often at five to ten percent interest per month, If the workers are deported, they will never be able to pay off their debts, and they and their families will be ruined.

This is nothing new. The National Labor Committee has been documenting slave-like conditions in Jordan for some time.

The larger point here is this. The U.S.-Jordan so-called "free trade" agreement was held up as the model deal. It was approved by a voice vote in the Senate in 2001--with virtually no Democratic opposition. When Sen. Hillary Clinton announced her decision to vote against the so-called "free trade" called CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreements), she said, in a statement:

The most problematic elements are its labor provisions which retreat from advances made in the late 1990s and that culminated in the labor provisions of the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement. The U.S.-Jordan Free Trade agreement included internationally recognized enforceable labor standards in the text of the agreement.

And...

The Chile, Australia and Singapore free trade agreements, which I supported, contained similar "enforce your own law" labor provisions to DR-CAFTA, but as I noted when I voted for these agreements, I was greatly disturbed by these provisions' departure from the labor rights standards negotiated in the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement. In the end, I supported these agreements despite these concerns because I believed the agreements would not harm the average working person in those nations and, thus, the flawed labor provisions did not outweigh the benefits offered by the agreements.

This is not intended to find fault with Sen Clinton alone; then-Senator John Edwards also supported the agreement and you can find many other Democratic senators making similar supporting statements. They all held to the same general belief that so-called "free trade" deals could be "improved" with provisions inserted on labor and the environment.

The problem is that these deals, as I've pointed out before, are primarily about protecting the rights of capital. You can never hope to enforce labor rights (or for that matter environmental protections) under a regime that is focused on profit first, and community second. It will not happen. And all the statements to the contrary are just rubbish. Why we would pretend that labor rights can be enforced as an after-thought, as a secondary issue, in countries around the world--when we can't even enforce basic labor rights here (such as safety and health regulations) because they are subject to politics and the free reign of the so-called "free market"--exposes the true fallacy of so-called "free trade."

In fact, once the so-called "free trade" deal was signed, Jordan attracted a huge number of sweatshop operations that were thrilled to operate in a zone from which they could export to the U.S. under a so-called "free trade" regime. And so you end up with scores of factories like the Victoria Secret operation.

You can do this. Write to Leslie Wexner, the CEO of Limited Brands, which puts out Victoria Secret clothing, and protest the treatment of the workers in Jordan:

Leslie Wexner, CEO
Limited Brands Inc.
3 Limited Pkwy.
Columbus, Ohio 43230
United States

Phone: (614) 415-7000
Fax: (614) 415-7080
E-mail: tkatzenmeyer@limitedbrands.com