It is around 10am on Friday. The students who have arrived at the Sheikh Mujib Mohila Technical Training Centre for their exams have a nervous look on their faces. About 50 women from different districts have arrived here to prove their skills for jobs in Jordanian RMG factories.
Usually, workers are picked out of long queues in front of the factory gate in the readymade garment industry in Bangladesh. But the case is different for these aspirants.
A Jordanian company is hiring about 400 women operators for its garment factory.
Stakeholders said 15 more companies are also hiring RMG workers for factories in Jordan.
They said workers of garment factories in Bangladesh are usually hired as helpers only on the basis of oral exams. But the recruiters from Jordan are appointing operators directly and candidates are being finalised by assessing their practical knowledge.
They said Jordanian apparel industry has recently leaned heavily towards appointing workers from Bangladesh as workers from other major sourcing countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and India cannot fly to Jordan because of travel restrictions imposed by their governments amid the pandemic.
Upon entering the six-storey main building of the Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib Mohila Technical Training Centre, it was seen that at least 15 workers were working with sewing machines in each of the four rooms on the ground floor to show their practical skills to qualify for the next stage of the recruitment process.
The Bangladesh-Korea Technical Training Centre and Bangladesh-German Technical Training Centre in the capital have also been busy taking workers' tests for the past three and a half months.
Sources said representatives of Jordanian apparel companies come to Dhaka every week to select skilled workers.
Another three dozen Jordanian companies have submitted demand letters this year to recruit female garment workers from Bangladesh.
Jordan's Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the USA has made the country a favourable destination for apparel manufacturers from foreign countries – including Bangladesh – to set up production facilities there to avail of the duty-free privilege. Apparel exports from Bangladesh are subject to duties in the US market, unlike the EU that offers zero duty.
Jordan allows factories to hire 75% of the workforce from abroad, opening up a new horizon for Bangladeshi skilled apparel workers, mostly women, to work in the Middle Eastern country. Minimum wage in Jordan is three times as high as that offered by factories in Bangladesh. Besides, recruiters offer air tickets, food, accommodation, and healthcare facilities to workers.
Sparrow Group shows the way
Tusker Apparel Limited, Bangladeshi Sparrow Group's joint venture company, is looking for about 400 women operators, while the factory already has 1,600 Bangladeshi female workers.
"We have been able to confirm only 250 in the last three months. We have to select rest of the workers as soon as possible as we have booked orders for the next session," said Sparrow Group Managing Director Shovon Islam.
"Due to the lockdown, we faced problems in interviewing workers and getting visas for the selected workers," he added.
Shovon Islam said they are providing air tickets, accommodation, food and primary healthcare facilities to the workers.
"The total recruitment process has been done through state-owned recruiting agency Bangladesh Overseas Employment and Services Limited (BOESL)," he added.
Velmuguran, a representative of Tusker Apparel Ltd, said workers' response has been low due to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown.
Like Tusker Apparel Limited, Classic Fashion Apparel Industry Limited Co, Aseel Universal Garments Manufacturing Co and Rainbow Textile representatives are also appointing workers through practical tests and interviews at three technical training centres in Dhaka under the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training.
A land of opportunities
Jordan's multitude of FTAs has made its economy one of the most open in the Middle East. The country has long been hailed as an island of stability in the midst of politically volatile Middle East.
According to the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), Jordan has a FTA with the USA.
The United States and Jordan continue to benefit from an extensive economic partnership. A key element of this relationship is the United States-Jordan Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that came into effect on 17 December 2001, and was implemented fully on 1 January 2010.
Besides, the Jordan government is also providing various facilities to foreign investors. As a result, investors from Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka are going to Jordan.
Shovon Islam said, "In 2010, my Indian partner and I were working for the same brand. At that time, we considered setting up a factory abroad where Bangladeshi workers would produce apparels. We searched for opportunities in Bahrain, Ethiopia and Jordan."
At first, they were very close to buying a factory in Bahrain. But there was a risk – the country's duty free market access would expire by 2014. Finally, they moved to Jordan considering its geographical location and strong trade relations with the US.
We would be able to use Israeli ports. Ships from those ports usually go to America faster than those from other ports. An Israeli port is only 40 kilometres away from Jordan's Al Dulayl Industrial Park and Real Estate where their factory is located, he added.
Shovan Islam said when they were planning to set up factories in Jordan, Classic Group, owned by an Hong Kong-based Indian, had already established its factory in Jordan, which was run by Sri Lankan workers. "Now Classic Group has the highest number of Bangladeshi female workers among all garment factories in Jordan."
Tusker Apparel Ltd started operations with two production lines employing 450 workers. Later, it increased production lines to 16 and number of workers to 2,000. But, four lines were shuttered due to the pandemic.
The firm, however, has secured a good number of orders for high-value products, said Shovon, adding, "Last year, the volume of our exports was $80 million. Hopefully, the figure will reach the $100-million mark this year."
Lucrative salary, other benefits
Apparel factories in Jordan are in need of thousands of skilled workers. They are also offering handsome salaries.
According to BOESL's annual report, each female worker can earn at least Tk22,000 per month in the country while the income hovers around Tk8,000 to Tk8,420 in Bangladesh.
On top of that, Jordanian garments pay for the flight and other charges of a worker.
Apparel worker Sonia Akhter, who has been selected as an operator at Rainbow Textile in Jordan, said this will be her first round to the country as she has got her visa and air ticket confirmed by the employer.
Imran, packing manager of Aseel Universal Garments Manufacturing Co, said, "We are recruiting workers who at least know sewing operations. Besides, the recruitments include some educated individuals for official jobs."
Md Abdus Sobhan, company secretary at BOESL, said, "Around 36 Jordanian companies have submitted demand letters this year to recruit female garment workers. But, we are not getting enough workers."
He said the Classic Fashion Apparel Industry Ltd alone needs 20,000 workers in phases.
Classic Fashion is currently looking for 1,200 workers to hire in one go, Nurul Haque Shabuj, a representative of the apparel maker, told TBS.
In December last year, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told the media that Jordan would recruit 12,000 skilled Bangladeshi workers in one year for its readymade garment industry.
"We are looking for 250 workers from Bangladesh as per our factory's current manpower demand, but we have selected about 170 people in two and a half months", said Mohammad Imran, packing manager of Aseel Universal Garments Manufacturing Co based in Amman, Jordan.
"I arrived in Dhaka on 18 June this year and was hoping to complete the recruitment process within two to three weeks. But, the progress has been slow, due to a shortage of candidates."
Mentioning that generally, workers from Sri Lanka, Nepal and India go to Jordan to work at garment factories there, he said they are not able to fly to Jordan now as those countries have imposed restrictions on airline operations amid the pandemic.
As a result, entrepreneurs have leaned heavily towards Bangladeshi workers, he added.
Kamrul Hasan Saiful, production manager of Haifa Apparel, said they were looking for 60 workers and already confirmed 40.
According to BOESL, 9,307 Bangladeshi garment workers, including 9,199 women, went to Jordan in one year from July 2018 to June 2019.
Some 90 export-oriented garment factories in the middle-eastern country employ over 70,000 workers and 75% of them are women, said Better Work Jordan – an association working to improve working conditions and boost competitiveness of the garment industry – in 2020.
About 16,000 of the workers are Jordanians, while 53,000 others have migrated from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, China, Cambodia, Madagascar, Pakistan, Myanmar, and Syria make up the rest.
Jordanian garment factories produce $2 billion worth of apparel items for international buyers a year, mostly from the US.