[Wall Street Journal] Sex Abuse Alleged at Apparel Maker
Jordanian authorities arrested a manager at a factory that makes clothing for Wal-Mart StoresInc. and other retailers after a female employee came forward to accuse him of rape, following what an activist group says were years of claims by other women workers of sexual abuse at the plant.
If the rape allegations are proved, it would highlight the difficulties Western companies sometimes face in assessing working conditions at the foreign plants that manufacture their products.
Wal-Mart, like many other large corporations, began using third-party monitors to pay surprise visits to the factories of its suppliers after a string of embarrassing revelations in the 1990s, including some suppliers' alleged use of child labor.
Since at least 2007, some workers at Classic Fashion Apparel Ltd., a Jordanian company whose clients include U.S.-based Wal-Mart and Target Corp., have claimed to a human-rights advocacy group that two factory managers were sexually abusing women.
But the factory owner and independent monitors employed by the retailers and the brands made at the factory said they were never able to corroborate the accounts because the accusers-typically guest workers from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka-never made an official complaint.
On Friday, however, a 26-year-old Bangladeshi woman, encouraged by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a U.S.-based group funded by labor unions, told Jordanian investigators that she had been raped by the factory's top manager since arriving in March, and she submitted to a medical examination.
The manager, Anil Santha, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of raping the woman, and has been jailed pending trial. Lt. Col. Mohamed Badr Baen of Jordan's human-trafficking office, which assisted in the probe, confirmed Mr. Santha had been arrested and detained but declined to comment further.
Mr. Santha's accuser, who was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, has left the company and the country.
Mr. Santha couldn't be reached for comment after his arrest, and it wasn't clear whether he had hired an attorney. In an interview with the Journal earlier this month, as the activist group prepared to release a report on the sex-abuse claims, Mr. Santha steadfastly denied sexually abusing any women.
"There is no proof," said Mr. Santha, a native of Sri Lanka. "I can swear to you that I have never had sexual relations with any women here in Jordan."
"Regarding the rape allegations and arrest, we are awaiting results of the investigation by the Jordanian law enforcement, which is still in progress," Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner said Sunday. He declined to elaborate.
The company's owner, Samal Kumar, said Sunday that he believes Mr. Santha is innocent. "This is destroying the good name of my factory," he said.
Jordan has become a magnet for apparel manufacturing since 2001, when the U.S. ratified a free-trade agreement allowing American companies to import goods from the country without tariffs. Most of the clothing is made by guest workers from countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and China, who typically work under low-wage contracts.
The activist group said it collected statements from more than a dozen current and former workers at Classic Fashion, who alleged that women were raped by company managers. The statements didn't identify the accusers by name.
Wal-Mart said it had heard claims about sex abuse at Classic Fashion in 2006 but, working with the company's auditors and the country's Labor Ministry, wasn't able to substantiate them. Classic Fashion makes a clothing line called Danskin Now, which is sold exclusively at Wal-Mart.
Hanesbrands Inc., which uses the factory to make C9, a line of Champion athletic gear sold exclusively at Target, said it too had heard claims of sexual abuse during a labor strike in 2008, but was unable to corroborate them.
The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights is headed by Charles Kernaghan, who is best known for disclosing at a congressional hearing in 1996 that a clothing line then being sold at Wal-Mart under the name of TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford was made with child labor in Honduras.
Mr. Kernaghan said the case in Jordan shows that the use of monitors to ensure factories comply with human rights doesn't work.
"We watch our facilities closely," Chris Fox, Hanesbrands' vice president of corporate social responsibility, said in an interview earlier this month. "Are there still dishonest people at these factories? Of course. But we believe having monitors visit these places several times a year makes a big difference."
Target said it is taking the situation at Classic Fashion "seriously," and will "take the steps necessary to appropriately address any violations."
Many Asian workers are eager to come to Jordan to earn more than they could back home. Many of them sell plots of land and borrow money from family to afford fees needed to secure the contracts to work abroad. But some of the women at Classic Fashion said in an interview that they felt trapped upon landing at the factory, with no choice but to remain and retire their debts.