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Evidence of meeting #30 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 labour.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Jeff Vogt  Legal Advisor, Department of Human and Trade Union Rights, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
Theresa McClenaghan  Executive Director and Counsel, Canadian Environmental Law Association
Charles Kernaghan  Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

12:35 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

Yes.

This is from a U.S. cable from a high-level State Department official:

Only when the king and government believe that the U.S. Congress and U.S. administration are serious about certain reforms will they take notice and attempt some level of reform. Continued engagement by senior U.S. officials, such as...will keep the pressure on the Jordanians and indicate to them that their reform efforts are being monitored by those who also follow the considerable foreign assistance levels allocated to Jordan.

In other words, I would say that the United States government has a pretty good grip on what's going on, but they're not moving.

So I would have to beg to differ with the ambassador. This is from a high-level State Department cable. As I said, I think the State Department knows what's going on, but for whatever reason they're not breaking through.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE

Then how do you see breaking through? I mean, we think we may be doing the right thing by moving ahead on a trade agreement. If you don't move ahead on the trade agreement, then you're just saying, well, the practices will continue with other countries. We have no way to apply pressure to try to change things. From your perspective, what's the best way to proceed?

I mean, it just shocks me; if this were oil instead of human workers, by God the U.S. government would be doing something. But here we are, a very rich western world, and in order to buy cheap clothes we're allowing the exploitation of human labour. It just makes absolutely no sense at all.

How do you see proceeding to protect these people's human rights?

12:40 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

I would very much be in favour of there being a conference, together with the United States and Canada, to have labour involvement from Canada and the United States, to have involvement from our embassies. I think if Canada, before moving ahead on the free trade agreement....

If there were some way to gather together with the Canadian Parliament and U.S. officials, along with labour input from Canada and the United States, I think we could make a very powerful statement to Jordan that things will have to change if a free trade agreement really does go forward.

Unfortunately, much of what goes on in Jordan is just politics. Jordan is getting rewarded for doing certain things and the workers are getting the shaft.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

Thank you very much.

Mr. Keddy.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

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

Thank you very much to our witness.

Mr. Kernaghan, your testimony was very forthright and, without question, disturbing. I guess the question I have.... I agree with the comments by Mr. Easter that we move countries forward by engagement, not by isolation. Isolation is really only used when it's the last resource you have left, the last card you have left to play.

There's a question I'm struggling with. I'm having some difficulty with this, because you said the U.S.-Jordan agreement was a good agreement. I know that it certainly has increased trade between the U.S. and Jordan. It looked as if, from the labour point of view, it was going to bring some modernization and probably equality to labour standards in Jordan.

So if—and it's not a question of “if”, and I'm not questioning your testimony—labour rules are being broken, and in extreme circumstances in some cases, that's a question of a legal issue that should have been taken care of by the Jordanian government. This individual who is the alleged rapist should have been dealt with by law.

However, you still have an agreement between the United States and Jordan that has clauses in it that can affect trade between the United States and Jordan. What is the reticence on behalf of the American government to engage that process? I'm failing to understand why they wouldn't engage that process.

12:40 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

If I'm understanding you correctly, I think this is just above my level. I mean, I do believe that the United States government has a very close relationship to the Government of Jordan and the free trade agreement was really meant to bring Jordan into an alliance with other nearby countries, such as Israel and all. So there are a lot of things going on.

Unfortunately, I think it was this attempt that launched the free trade agreement, because it's an odd thing to have a free trade agreement where people won't work in the factories and you have to bring in guest workers.

Of course, that opens people to abuse: they don't know the language, they're young women, and they pay a lot of money to get these contracts to come to Jordan. In the Classic factory, the young girls are only allowed out of the factory for six hours a week, on a Friday, and when they come back to the factory, they're interrogated.

So something's gone wrong. Again, maybe it can be fixed, but it's going to have to be fixed with some very hard questioning of the Jordanian government.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

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

I appreciate what you're saying, that it may be more complicated than simply an abuse on the ground, whether that's blatant in all aspects of the economy or just in this portion of it.

We're just going to say that there's a failure on behalf of the U.S. to enforce the rules. However, that certainly doesn't lead me to believe that there would be a failure on Canada's behalf to enforce the rules. We've signed a trade agreement here with Jordan. We signed it in good faith. We expect to see improvements in labour, in the environment, and in respect for human rights. The Jordanians have told us those things will happen.

With other free trade agreements we've signed with other countries around the world.... I happen to be a supporter of free trade. I appreciate your candour and honesty in saying that you have not supported free trade agreements in the past. However, moving forward, we signed a free trade agreement with Colombia, and I want to use this as an example.

Colombia has had major struggles in the past, and it still has some challenges ahead of it, without question. Yet in every single category, life has improved for Colombians. I'm not saying it's perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but life has improved for Colombians. Freedom of association, ability to travel, personal safety, respect for the environment, ability to find a job—in every single category things have improved for the average Colombian. Again, it's not perfect.

We would expect that this agreement should—and I'm going to use the word “should”—be able to bring some of that to Jordan. I think the whole issue of whether Jordanians themselves work in the factory is a whole other cultural issue, which we're not going to settle here today.

We still buy their products. In the past, when we've seen blatant labour abuses around the world, citizens in the United States, Canada, and the European Union have boycotted those countries. I'm a little bit shocked that, if it's as bad as you say it is, we're not seeing some of that kickback, if you will, from consumers.

12:45 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

We're not experts on the case of Colombia, but I do believe they still have, by far, the highest death rate of trade union people in any country in the world, so problems do remain.

I can tell you, if any of you wanted to go with us to Jordan, I could give you my word that we could hold a meeting with 1,000 or 2,000 workers at the Classic factory, and those guest workers would speak the truth to you if they were guaranteed that there wouldn't be reprisals against them.

We did it already. We went to the Classic factory. I think we did this in 2008. We held a meeting with maybe 2,000 or 3,000 workers in a giant auditorium, and we had the Ministry of Labour there. The workers told the truth about how they were touched and groped, and about how they were beaten, and about how they had to work. In other words, it's relatively easy to find out what's happening, right from the workers' mouths and from their own documentation, and to go to see the dormitories and see how many hours they work.

I think maybe I'm a little out of place here. We are actually researchers, and we are workers' rights advocates, like human rights workers. We don't work at the highest levels of the U.S. government or other governments. Basically, our job is to investigate and to try to improve conditions and help the workers.

I'm leaving tomorrow for Bangladesh. This is what we do. We go on the ground and we do these investigations. We put pressure on the major labels to improve conditions.

We're not very much into theory.

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

Thank you very much.

Mr. Masse, I believe you're splitting your time with Ève.

March 29th, 2012 / 12:45 p.m.

NDP

Brian Masse NDP Windsor West, ON

Yes, I am. Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you for being with us today.

With regard to the Canada-Colombia deal, that agreement has only been in effect for six months, so I'd like to see the evidence of the improvements. The time certainly doesn't add up, in my opinion, in terms of a full evaluation of the effects of the trade agreement with regard to human rights.

At any rate, I thank you for your comments. The ambassador actually did agree, and invited us, and said we could go to Jordan.

Would you be willing to share with us your Congressional and Senate representatives who have worked on this file, elected persons, and would you be willing to work with us to create a Canada-U.S.-Jordan working group to bring to fruition the ideals of the U.S. FTA before we ratify the Canada-Jordan deal?

Would you be willing to bridge that? You're saying that it should be the ideal, and it isn't working as the ideal; we know that. How do we get there? That's the key.

I'm a big fan of the carrot and the stick: you have the incentive, but you make sure you have the stick to make sure you get to the final destination before you give away everything you've got.

12:50 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

I would think it would be a great idea. I know there are very decent and high-level people in the State Department who are very involved in this at the U.S. Trade Representative's office. They have never put a block on us or stopped this dialogue. The U.S. Trade Representative's office has been fantastic. The office on human trafficking has been fantastic. The State Department has been fantastic.

Maybe you're on to something. As a way to bring all of you together and to make that final push against Jordan, you may have found an answer.

12:50 p.m.

NDP

Brian Masse NDP Windsor West, ON

Could you send us that information? We want to make things work, but there has to be accountability, at the end of the day. If you could send that information, please, I would appreciate it. The clerk will distribute it to the rest of the committee.

I think we may have something here.

12:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

Thank you very much.

Ève.

12:50 p.m.

NDP

Ève Péclet NDP La Pointe-de-l'Île, QC

Thank you very much.

You have been on the ground. You have been to Jordan. You probably know that during the Arab Spring there was a lot of opposition from the population to the government in place right now and to the regime, which is a monarchy right now and has most of the power in its hands.

How do you think this situation prevents the government—which uses military force, for instance, to keep people from demonstrating in the streets—from inspecting these types of factories?

How does this opposition impact the likelihood of the government enforcing human rights?

12:50 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

You're absolutely correct about the lack of democracy in Jordan, the lack of freedom of the press, the lack of the right to organize. The workers themselves, the guest workers—we're talking from their perspective—come to places like Jordan because they're incredibly poor. They want to give their families a little better life, so they're willing to travel all the way from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka and come to a factory like Classic.

All they want is their minimum rights. They're not asking for $10 an hour. They're not asking for two days off a week. They're not asking for an eight-hour day. In other words, it should actually be relatively easy to bring these factories into compliance with international labour rights standards. But at this particular point, from what I can see, there is no good faith on the part of the Jordanian Ministry of Labour or other elements.

Again, I mentioned about the media; an independent media is critical. We find out, though, that the media in Jordan is terrified. They self-censor themselves because of fines and threats of four years' imprisonment.

In fact, one gentleman, the AP head in Jordan, wrote a very truthful piece—I'll send you the article—about the rape of the young girls at the Classic factory. Well, what happened was that the U.S. companies picked up the telephone and called AP in New York City, their headquarters, to try to get this guy fired.

So there's a lot of stuff going on. This is what the labels are doing. It's a very tough situation. Any time you have guest workers from thousands of miles away, isolated from their home countries, with no rights, it's a very difficult circumstance.

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Rob Merrifield

Your time is up. Thank you very much.

Mr. Holder.

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Holder Conservative London West, ON

Thank you to our guests for attending.

Mr. Kernaghan, who specifically did you bring up your concerns with in the U.S. government with respect to violations relating to the U.S.-Jordan free trade agreement?

12:55 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

I have testified a number of times before Congress and in the Senate. Basically, we send our material immediately to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative as well as to the State Department and to the labour department. I know that the president of the United Steelworkers of the United States and Canada, Leo Gerard, was in very high-level adjudications with the State Department.

He is really on the side of these workers. Pretty much, I think, we've spoken to a lot of members of the House and a lot of members of the Senate as well.

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Holder Conservative London West, ON

Mr. Kernaghan, I guess I'm thinking about the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. I'm trying to get a sense of how you measure your effectiveness in relation to your dealings with the United States regarding this free trade agreement.

I'm not here to challenge your testimony. We all just want to get to what is correct. You said that if workers could have the right to speak freely, they would speak freely as long as there were no reprisals. You then indicated that thousands attended a rally or some form of meeting to express their concerns, and I think the fact that they could do that is terrific.

I want to come back. How does your organization measure its effectiveness? You obviously want to be effective. In your dealings with the United States, the most powerful economic country in the world, which can't put that kind of pressure on Jordan.... How do you measure what you do with them?

12:55 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

For example, when we issued our report in 2006, the government literally went into a state of shock. The head of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative asked us how we did this.

In other words, in the first five years of the free trade agreement, the U.S. government didn't have a clue as to what was going on. The head of the U.S. Trade Representative—

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Holder Conservative London West, ON

Sorry—can I stop you?

At that point in 2008 when you did that and you brought it to them and they were shocked, how did they respond? Has there been a noticeable, significant difference through the dealings of the most powerful country, the United States, with Jordan to improve the rights of workers, be they migrant or otherwise?

12:55 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

There have been minor improvements, but by and large inside factories there remain sweatshop conditions and illegal conditions.

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Holder Conservative London West, ON

Thank you for that.

With respect to the media, you mentioned that media are afraid to make reports because of the reprisals associated with fines and jail terms.

Can you tell us the names of media members that have been fined the $28,000? I think it would be very useful for us to get their accounts of what happened. I think it would help this committee. You don't have to do that right this second, but do you have their names?

12:55 p.m.

Director, Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

Charles Kernaghan

The U.S. cables don't really give their names, but it says here that this official highlighted specific restrictions with the Justice Minister Odeh, including the threat of high fines up to U.S. $20,000—later on, they say it's $28,000—under the press and publication law and the threat of imprisonment under the prison code.

It is a fact that over 90% of journalists say they practise self-censorship.

I don't think that it's—

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Holder Conservative London West, ON

How about the other 10%? Has anybody been fined?