Abused Workers At Jordan's Classic Factories: NGO Responds

The Sunday Leader |  By Maryam Azwer | July, 17 2011 |  Share  | Source Article

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Following The Sunday Leader's article "Ministry Says ‘No Evidence' of Rape and Harassment at Jordan Garment Factory", dated July 10, 2011, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR), in a response via email claimed that workers at Jordan's Classic factories were too afraid and did not trust the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare.

The Ministry, last week, claimed that they had found no proof of allegations made by IGLHR, that rape and abuse took place at these factories, and that alleged rapist, Anil Santha, may have been wrongly accused. They also claimed that they had never received any response from the IGLHR, when they contacted the NGO regarding the issue.

These statements were made by Chairman, Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, Kingsley Ranawaka, and Ministry Secretary Colonel Nissanka Wijerathne, following investigations by a Ministry team that visited Jordan. See box for IGLHR's full response to the statements made by Ranawaka and Col. Wijerathne.


Whitewash At Classic Factory In Jordan

Sadly, what Chairman Kingsley Ranawaka and the Ministry of Foreign Employment were able to prove during their investigation in Jordan was that the young Sri Lankan guest workers at Classic have the same well-founded fear and lack of trust in the Ministry as they do the repressive factory management.

Referring to the numerous taped testimonies of young Sri Lankan women workers at Classic who described being brutally and repeatedly raped by Anil Santha, chairman Ranawaka responded, "It seems these were all baseless allegations."  The chairman goes on to state:  "If they can give a voice-cut to an NGO, why can't they give a statement to us?"

This is easy to explain:  The Sri Lankan guest workers in Jordan have never received any help whatsoever from either the Ministry of Foreign Employment or the Sri Lankan Embassy in Amman.  The reason the Sri Lankan rape victims reached out to the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR) is that they saw how we accompanied the Classic workers in their struggle to improve working conditions and respect for their legal rights.  We supported the workers' demands-and won-at least one Friday off a week;  an end to the routine, gruelling mandatory 15-hour shifts;  a stop to the physical abuse and beatings of workers;  correct payment of overtime wages; and pressure to stop the sexual harassment, abuse and rape of scores of young Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi women.  The workers are far from stupid.  They have a very good idea of whom they can, and cannot, trust.

Ministry Secretary Colonel Nissanka Wijerathne also stated that:  "We wanted them [IGLHR] to come, to meet this investigation team, but they never came."  This is not true.  If the Colonel, or any representative of the Sri Lankan government, had asked to meet with us, we certainly would have done so.

The only thing the Colonel could possibly be referring to was a supposed "worker meeting" that we learned was to be a staged "dog and pony" show controlled and orchestrated by Classic management on Friday, June 17.  This is how the meeting was described by a Jordanian newspaper ("Tell me" June 19, 2011), "...that the factory management in the industrial city of Al Hassan in the Irbid precinct forced the workers to go out in a demonstration against the American report that said there were rape cases of the female workers [in the factory]."  Moreover, "...the factory management met with the workers and told them that in case they did not deny the report, they will close the factory and fire the workers."  The workers were also obligated to paint banners in English which read, "You do it, Sanal" (referring to Classic's owner), and "IGLHR, You can't teach us about Human Rights.  Classic has already taught us very well."   It is true we did not go to this meeting.  No one could possibly take such a ridiculous and staged meeting seriously.  While this ridiculous charade was being staged at Al Hassan, our delegation was working to rescue a young Bangladeshi woman who had been raped at Classic.  (We were completely unaware that representatives of the Sri Lankan government planned to be there.)

Again, no one from the Ministry of Foreign Employment ever communicated with us or asked to meet us.

The Institute has had large and serious meetings with the Classic workers.  For example, in 2008 we held a meeting with 800 Classic workers at the auditorium in Al Hassan.  Classic management was prohibited from attending, as was the Jordanian police.  The meeting was between the workers, the Institute and the Jordanian Ministry of Labour.  So there are ways to structure a meeting so the workers can speak the truth without fear of retaliation or dismissal.  But to organise such a meeting, you have to want to get to the truth.

A women's rights advocate in Sri Lanka shocked us when she explained that there are worse things than rape.  If a young Sri Lankan woman publicly admits to being a rape victim, her chances of getting married are nil, and any hopes she had for her future would be destroyed.  The young women guest workers at Classic are in a trap, unable to speak out or fight back.  The serial rapist, Anil Santha, lets his young victims know that if they ever speak so much as a word regarding his abuse, he will have them imprisoned.

Everyone knows that Anil Santha was twice expelled from Jordan, in 2008 and again in November 2010, for sexually attacking and raping young women.  In November 2010, over 2400 Sri Lankan and Indian workers went  on strike to end the rape and abuse of the young Sri Lankan women.  Here too, the Ministry of Foreign Employment got it wrong.  Chairman Kingsley Ranawaka went out of his way to concoct a story that there was a clash between the Sri Lankans and the Indonesian workers (but there are no Indonesians in Jordan's garment factories), which had nothing to do with the sexual assault of young women at Classic.

We will never abandon the rape victims at Classic.  We will not go away.  We will start a popular campaign in the United States, especially among women, alerting them to the widespread sexual abuse and other serious women's and human rights violations at Classic, where young women guest workers from Sri Lanka are sewing the clothing that we purchase here in the United States.

I cannot go into details, but I can say that Leo Gerard, the president of the United Steelworkers union in the United States and Canada, is deeply involved in supporting the rights of the Sri Lankan guest workers at Classic and is in weekly and sometimes daily contact with the highest levels of the U.S. Government.  Our next step will be to expand the Classic campaign to the United Kingdom, where we have many contacts.  Following that we will alert international human and women's rights governmental agencies and NGOs.

Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights,
Charles Kernaghan.