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Evidence of meeting #29 for International Trade in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was jordan.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Excellency Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi  Ambassador, Embassy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Bashar Abu Taleb  First Secretary and Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

11 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

I call the meeting to order. Could we have members take their seats?

Today, for the first hour, we are continuing our study on the Canada-Jordan free trade agreement.

We have a special guest with us today: Ambassador Zoubi. Thank you very much for coming in. You have some people with you, and I'll ask you to introduce to the committee.

We want to thank you for taking the time to come in. It's a very important free trade agreement. We're looking forward to moving forward on it as soon as possible.

The floor is yours as we continue our serious deliberation on the merits of this free trade agreement.

11 a.m.

His Excellency Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi Ambassador, Embassy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Good morning, and thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thank you for inviting me here today. I know I'm the first Jordanian to talk to you about the subject, and I thank you for the invitation. Also allow me to voice my admiration for the comprehensive approach your committee has taken on this subject, which we attach great importance to in Jordan, namely Bill C-23, the Canada-Jordan Economic Growth and Prosperity Act. I shall try within the allocated 10 minutes to shed some light on certain areas that were not covered in the previous sessions.

Jordan is partner to eight free trade agreements, four of which are multilateral regional agreements with regional economic groupings such as the Arab countries and the European Union. We also have economic agreements and arrangements relating to trade, investment, and double taxation with 77 countries, including Canada.

For its part, the Jordan-Canada free trade agreement is a concrete example of Jordan’s striving to support its economy through a viable partnership in international trade while at the same time building on a long history of close ties with a like-minded country. We consider Jordan and Canada to be very close in our positions internationally in other arenas and we see eye to eye on many subjects.

The following are some examples to put to you here today. Jordan is the only Middle Eastern member in the Human Security Network, and our two countries contributed in the development of the International Criminal Court. Jordan was also one of the first countries in the Middle East to sign and ratify the anti-personnel mine ban convention in 1998. By next month, we will be free of all known land mines in Jordan, ending an operation of demining that started in 1993 to clear over 300,000 land mines.

For decades Jordan has been the largest host to Palestinian refugees. Our country of six million people hosts about half a million Iraqis, and with the recent Syrian situation, our records show that over 80,000 Syrians have passed to Jordan through border crossings. Eight per cent of those newcomers are students who have been admitted to Jordanian schools. Canada’s history in positive involvement in refugee issues in the Middle East includes support to UNRWA and having been once the gavel-holder of the committee on refugees during the multilateral peace talks with Israel.

The Honourable Lester Pearson is considered the father of the peacekeeping concept. Since 1989 over 100,000 of our troops have participated in more than 32 United Nations peacekeeping missions. As of November 2011, Jordan is the largest provider of civilian police personnel and fifth-largest provider of military personnel to United Nations peacekeeping, deploying both men and women.

On the humanitarian level, Jordan dispatched eight field hospitals, covering Afghanistan, Gaza, Benghazi, Jenin, Ramallah, Liberia, and Congo. The two hospitals in Afghanistan have treated more than half a million cases since their first deployment in December 2001, and the hospital in Gaza has treated 800,000 cases since 2008.

Two years ago Jordan began sending imams—Muslim clergymen—and combat-trained women into the villages of Afghanistan. Their mission was to preach moderate Islam to Afghan women. His Majesty King Abdullah II said that the people who he thought really hold the power, those who are going to make an impact, are the women, and nobody is talking to them.

Mr. Chairman, His Majesty King Abdullah II paid close attention at a very early stage to the necessity and urgency of political reform while focusing on the concerns and sometimes frustrations of the youth. In 2009, before the Arab Spring, His Majesty presented the Prime Minister of Jordan with a set of reforms to fight corruption, increase transparency, protect the rights of women and children, and remove all obstacles to the development of a free and professional media industry. Such an open, inclusive, and tolerant political sphere determined that the course of reform in Jordan is peaceful, gradual, and evolutionary.

In the past 15 months, Jordan has witnessed more than 100 protests, marches, or sit-ins per week, reaffirming and enhancing the peaceful character of the Jordanian political discourse.

In 2011 His Majesty King Abdullah II initiated the constitutional reforms. The royal committee entrusted with reviewing the Constitution suggested amendments to 42 fundamental articles of the Constitution to ensure the provision of the constitutional foundations that guarantee the balance between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, established for the first time a constitutional court that will safeguard the constitution, and set up an independent electoral monitoring commission, as stipulated by the National Dialogue Committee.

The government is currently completing the legal infrastructure legislation that will ensure the integrity and credibility of the political process, primarily through a political parties law and a representative election law. With endorsement of the new laws, Jordan will have accomplished most of the legislative infrastructure required for an institutional process to ensure that engagement of the grassroots, of political parties and unions, and of Parliament and government lives up to national ambitions and expectations.

It is true that the King of Jordan appoints the Prime Minister, but this appointment has to gain the approval of our elected Parliament with a two-thirds majority in a vote of confidence. The number of political parties in Jordan exceeded 30, yet due to prevailing voting trends in the voters in Jordan, many parties never made it to Parliament. The maximum majority obtained was 6%, which we admit is very low. It follows that His Majesty names an independent personality as a Prime Minister, the approval of whom remains vested in Parliament during a confidence vote. The aim of the new political parties law and the new election law is to further enable political parties to achieve the required majority to form a government.

Mr. Chairman, for political reforms to be incremental, durable, and sustainable, they need to be made in conjunction with economic reforms that develop the economy so as to reflect on the living conditions of Jordanians. Since 1989 Jordan has been committed to economic and fiscal reforms aimed at decreasing the budget deficit, achieving healthy growth rates, limiting unhealthy subsidies, and gradually moving toward a market economy.

The regional upheavals, armed conflicts, increases in energy prices, population movements, and most recently the disruption of the Egyptian gas supply to Jordan—the gas supply that comes from Egypt to Jordan has been bumped 15 times so far since the Arab Spring, and it costs us about $5 million a day for each day that supply is halted—have forced the Jordanian government to intervene in the economy, at a massive cost to the budget, to limit the impact of such upheavals on the living conditions of Jordanians. This has impacted our progress in economic reforms, since Jordan imports 96% of its energy needs.

Solidifying national political and economic reforms and allowing them to progress and flourish require a conducive regional environment. Democratic transition must be combined with peace and security regionally to avoid the risks of radicalization, derailment, or hijacking, hence ensuring that the transition toward the desired reforms will fulfill the aspirations of the public for freedom and prosperity.

Finding a just, lasting, and comprehensive peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieving the two-state solution is the utmost priority of Jordan. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the core issue in the Middle East. It has consumed immense energies and rendered development and reform efforts secondary to the efforts of settling the conflict and stabilizing the region. Peace is a prerequisite for stability and development, and these two are essential to democracy and good governance.

Jordan believes a timelined resumed peace process should be launched as soon as possible, with defined terms of reference and a clear end point based on the original terms of reference. Those terms of reference are the United Nations Security Council resolutions 242, 338, and 425 and the “land for peace” formula; the Arab peace initiative of the Beirut Summit; and United Nations Security Council resolution 1397, which is the two-state solution.

Earlier this year Jordan embarked on a diplomatic effort to break the impasse that had befallen the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and this culminated in exchanges and direct exploratory talks. Those talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis took place in Amman.

These talks were serious, and we hope that they have enabled us to maintain the timetable identified by the quartet in its September 23, 2011, statement under which an agreement on all issues should be reached by the end of 2012, realizing the two-state solution.

I thank you very much.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

Thank you very much.

I have just one quick question to follow up on your testimony. When you don't get your energy from Egypt, if it's disrupted, where do you get it from?

11:10 a.m.

H.E. Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi

That's a good question. We go back to the old system. The old system is using diesel, and that costs a lot. We don't produce it in Jordan; we import it. It has very negative impacts on the environment, which we thought we had already passed.

The explosions, or whatever is hindering the supply, occur within Egyptian territory. Our partners in Egypt try as fast as they can to fix it and to protect the lines, but politics are also involved over there. We know that those explosives are not directed at Jordan; the same line supplies Jordan and Israel, so again we know it's attacked for political reasons.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

Thank you very much.

We'll move on to questions and answers.

Mr. Masse will begin.

March 27th, 2012 / 11:10 a.m.

NDP

Brian Masse NDP Windsor West, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair. You started with a really good and pertinent question.

We're actually interested in moving this file forward, but the biggest stumbling block that I have is the human rights and labour issues in Jordan.

I thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for being here today, and hopefully you can provide some more detail as to what's happening in Jordan with regard to migrant workers and domestic workers and their rights as individuals, because we see them as key and central for Jordan to move forward with Canada in terms of a trading relationship.

My first question is this: why can non-citizens in Jordan not organize under the labour accord, as you rely a lot on foreign workers for Jordan? Why can they not organize under your current legal system?

11:10 a.m.

H.E. Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi

I thank you very much for your question and I am happy that you share our aspiration to end the process of this important free trade agreement between us.

In Jordan, let me go back a little bit in history. His Majesty King Hussein ruled for over 40 years, and literally, he built Jordan. He built the new Jordan that we know.

His Majesty King Abdullah, when he acceded to the throne in 1999, was in a country where you have 70% of the population under the age of 30, so he started a set of reforms and he started a set of.... We know, as Jordan, we were partners to many international agreements. Many of them are in human rights, and in that area we boast that we are ahead of anybody else.

Then you have your international commitment, and at the same time you have to apply it within your government and within your country, so we started that process. It started about 2003, with what we called at the time our “national agenda”. The aim of the national agenda was to bring the international commitment closer to application in Jordan.

Doing that, at the same time we started our negotiations with the European Union. We have an association agreement between us. This association agreement has a meeting of the councils between Jordan and the EU every six months, and we work on a set plan of action. That plan of action covers many aspects. The three main subcommittees are the human rights subcommittee, the justice and peace subcommittee, and the subcommittee on social affairs.

On all those points that you mentioned about the labour laws, we have our international commitment and we have our application in Jordan. With our new laws, any labour in Jordan, be it foreign labour or domestic labour, is now covered within the Jordanian law. There is no exclusion and no different treatment.

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Brian Masse NDP Windsor West, ON

Are you suggesting that civil servants, domestic staff, gardeners, cooks, and agricultural workers are actually now covered? I ask because my understanding is that they are not covered and non-nationals are not covered. Are you telling us today that they are all covered under the current Jordanian law? I want that to be very specific. Are they covered, yes or no?

11:15 a.m.

H.E. Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi

I can't give you a yes or no. I can tell you the following: there are groups—

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Brian Masse NDP Windsor West, ON

It's pretty simple. Are agricultural workers covered by the labour laws in Jordan right now, whether they are domestic or whether they are foreign nationals? Are they covered by labour laws if they are working in the Jordanian agricultural community right now?

11:15 a.m.

H.E. Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi

It has nothing to do with the origin of the worker; it has to do with the sector that they are working in. If you have a sector that has more than two or three workers, then everyone is covered. The next step will be to work on individuals.

You mentioned agricultural and domestic workers. I add fishermen to that also. Those are the categories that you are referring to, but that has nothing to do with their origin, if they are Jordanians or if they are foreign workers. It is the sector of the industry that we are covering, and this is the next step that we are getting to.

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Brian Masse NDP Windsor West, ON

I do appreciate that, but what sectors are covered and what are not? I need to know that, because we have some challenges here in Canada, believe me. I come from an area where we use migrant workers from Mexico for the agricultural industry, and we've had to fight to get them the proper coverage in standards even in our own country.

I'm not here to say that we're the greatest, because we have some issues and I deal with these on a regular basis every day; at the same time, what I'm trying to learn from you is whether you have different standards for different industries, and, if so, what they are.

11:15 a.m.

H.E. Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi

If you'll allow me to rephrase for you, we don't have different standards, but different steps for different industries. We started with the larger industries and we're moving to the industries that have smaller numbers of individuals working in them. If you want to look at some of those examples, domestic workers are one of them, but that's not in the law. Now we have stronger laws that cover them, meaning, if I can elaborate, that we've been having some problems in the area of domestic workers.

I was listening to the deliberations of the committee. Some of them were that you have cases in which their passports were held or they were not paid in full, etc. All these practices are against the law. Anybody who does that is breaking the law. Now we are applying the law. Recently we have had a stronger application of the law, whereby every new worker who comes to Jordan has to have a bank account where their money should be deposited.

They have hotlines to call for any complaint they might have. When they come to Jordan, they are given brochures about their rights and what they can do, as well as where they can contact their embassies. Those brochures are in different languages, not only Arabic or English.

There's one more thing: we're working on making them apply for social security. Now again I'm talking about industries that have a single worker, not more than that.

One of the sectors you mentioned, which was in the media also, is the agricultural sector, but that isn't all the sector. It doesn't cover it all. If you have a branch that has more than three or four people, they are covered already. What dictates it is the number of workers, as I stated.

11:20 a.m.

NDP

Brian Masse NDP Windsor West, ON

Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

Would you be open to having a delegation to see, on the ground floor in Jordan, these...?

11:20 a.m.

H.E. Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi

Please do.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

Thank you very much.

Mr. Keddy is next.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Gerald Keddy Conservative South Shore—St. Margaret's, NS

Thank you Mr. Chairman.

Welcome, Your Excellency and guests.

This has been a very informative session up to this point. Maybe, just before I ask you a question, I'd make a statement that we certainly welcome the NDP support of this free trade agreement. It would be a first. It would be a welcome change of tack and certainly something we need for the betterment of our country.

I would like to drill down just a little more and allow you some time to be very clear in your statement to Mr. Masse.

Correct me if I'm wrong: my understanding, from what you've said, is that all the larger industries that have hundreds of employees are given the same rights as Jordanians under the labour law that exists. The smaller numbers, which I expect would be domestic help of two or three people, are not organized at this point. However, it's not clear that they don't have the same rights as other workers. Do they or do they not have the same rights as other workers?

11:20 a.m.

H.E. Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi

Thank you very much for the explanation. This is exactly what I meant.

The rights they have are in the application. The written law is not as extensive and does not cover as much as it does for the larger numbers, but we are getting to that point.

They have their rights and they have their laws. They come to work in Jordan under a contract agreement, and the government monitors their work. There is a special unit in the ministry of labour that can go to any house to check on the workers' situation, so they are followed up, but it's not yet written extensively in the law as much as we want it to be, when compared to other sectors in the industry.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Gerald Keddy Conservative South Shore—St. Margaret's, NS

Thank you very much for that clarification, and I would congratulate you on your demining efforts. It's absolutely remarkable that in practically a decade you've been able to come within sight of complete demining in Jordan.

The fact that you signed trade agreements with 77 countries, the fact that you are absolutely a gateway into the rest of the Arab world, and the contribution that you've made to democracy around the world with your peacekeeping soldiers and missions are to be lauded, without question.

I can't help but think that this agreement with Jordan is not dissimilar in many ways to the agreement with Colombia. There has been a remarkable change in Colombia over the last couple of decades in terms of labour reform and environmental reform. There is a renewed respect for the rule of law, and the country has really come into the 21st century.

We signed a free trade agreement with Colombia, and I think the situation is similar with Jordan, in many ways. You've had a peaceful transition of power, which is to be lauded, with your new king.

I think it's absolutely remarkable that you're moving in this direction and have had as little conflict as you have. For all of those reasons, I sincerely congratulate you. It's important to us.

I would like you to expand a little on the possibilities. This is a trade agreement. We've seen what happened with your trade agreement with the United States; trade has increased substantially, I think by over 400%, since the agreement was signed. Would you expect that same type of expansion of trade to occur with Canada, Your Excellency? Also, with regard to trade, could you expand on your role in the greater Middle East area?

That's a long, complicated question; the chair will give you time for a long, complicated answer.

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

Okay, you've finally got a question. Let's go.

11:25 a.m.

H.E. Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi

Thank you for your generosity, and thank you for your kind words. It's really good for us to see for ourselves that we are doing something useful within our region and that we are appreciated by partners, and as I started saying, by like-minded countries.

Jordan is making the demining efforts while we still have countries that are negotiating peace. We are pushing for peace with the one side, and we are also working on the ground by demining and through other participation.

We don't like to compare free trade agreements, but our whole concept is to increase our partnerships with the United States, with the EU, and of course with Canada. I remember in 2000, when we signed our free trade agreement with the U.S., that there was a study in the United States saying that this amount of trade would be insignificant to the United States. Now, after 10 years, there is a report listing Jordan as 78th on the list of the United States' partners in free trade. Seventy-eight out of 200 is a good number for us.

Even if you look at Jordan-Canada trade before the free trade agreement, we have tripled in that time the amount of trade we have between us. We know that sometimes bureaucrats sit and negotiate and talk and set things on paper, but we know that we have a very active private sector and we work in a market economy. Our economies are close and the banking systems in our countries originated from the same system, so I know that many levels are going to be there to trade.

You mentioned, if the expression is right, that we are here to sell Jordan. At the same time, it's a small region. If you drive from the northern part of Jordan to the southern part, you'll cross to Saudi Arabia before somebody driving from Ottawa would make it to Windsor. We are a very small country, but being small gives us manoeuvrability and movability in the region.

Our trade relations with Iraq have been established for a long time. Many countries, as you have heard in previous sessions, have their embassies located in Amman. They cover Iraq at the same time.

Our other neighbour to the south is Saudi Arabia. It's part of the GCC countries, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Our neighbours to the north are Syria and Turkey, so our position is a linking point between Europe and the Gulf States.

As we are a small country, it would be easy to have a railway that could connect all these areas together. We have no problem talking to any of our neighbours. As I mentioned, the 77 countries we have our agreements with include, of course, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and all our extended neighbours.

Almost everybody, as we said, speaks English in Jordan, so it won't be hard, and of course you'll find people in Jordan who speak French, so the infrastructure is there. I'm sure that our private sectors on both sides will be very creative in expanding the volume of trade between us.

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

Okay. Thank you very much.

Go ahead, Mr. Easter.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Ambassador, for a really good overview of the situation in Jordan.

I want to come to the labour issues eventually, but I'll spin off the question Gerald asked about the idea of Jordan basically providing an opportunity for Canada as a gateway to the Middle East. Given the uncertainty and the economic pressures in the region now—and you certainly mentioned them in terms of it costing your economy $5 million a day, I think you said, when that energy pipeline from Egypt shuts down—where do you see the major export opportunities for Canada?

I'm well aware of the agriculture side. That's an industry I'm from. Where do you see the major export opportunities if you're trying to convince Canadians to enter into this agreement? There has to be a benefit on both sides. Where do you see the opportunities for Canadians, from where you sit?

11:30 a.m.

H.E. Basheer Fawwaz Zoubi

Thank you very much. That's a very excellent question.

To start with, the problems that we have in our region were not made yesterday. I mean, this is the story of our lives: we try as much as possible to maintain peace and security in our region and at the same time deal with daily business. If we were to be distracted or halted by the events that happen in the Middle East, no one would have trade. As an example, the free trade agreement with the U.S. or the European Union wouldn't have thrived and prospered or increased in amounts.

The number one priority for us is to keep the area as peaceful as possible. Number two is for business to continue. I give you the example of Lebanon, which has lived for years in fear of war. The war would be going on in one part, and in the other part, where there was no fighting, they'd be building and importing material to work over there. Of course it's a distraction to have all this instability in the region, but that doesn't mean that trade cannot prosper or cannot continue as it is.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE

There was an interesting session yesterday at Carleton University, and you or some of your people might have even been there. They held a session on Canada-Arab relations and economic and political perspectives. Peace in the Middle East was the key issue, and how you get there. It was a really good session, and I expect you likely had people there.

I want to come back to the trade question again. Brian raised a lot of concerns, and opponents to this trade agreement usually base their opposition on labour concerns and environment concerns, mainly labour and human rights. Convince me that this is a good deal for Canada.