NEWS:Human Rights Group Urges Action on Saipan

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Subject: NEWS:Human Rights Group Urges Action on Saipan
From: Jyothi Kanics (jkanics@igc.org)
Date: Thu May 27 1999 - 22:57:08 EDT


Human Rights Group Urges Action on Saipan
Report Details Abuse of Minimum-Wage Garment Workers on U.S.-Affiliated Island
By William Branigin
The Washington Post, May 24, 1999; Page A06

Human rights and labor groups are urging the Justice Department to crack
down on the trafficking and abuse of foreign workers on a U.S. island in
the western Pacific.

The plea, in a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, accompanies the
release today of a report on an eight-month undercover investigation by a
Washington-based human rights group, Global Survival Network, into
conditions in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The group
found that the U.S.-affiliated archipelago "has become a center of
international human trafficking operations" involving Chinese and Japanese
organized crime, debt bondage, sexual slavery and the exploitation of
workers in garment sweatshops.

The letter to Reno, signed by a dozen organizations including the American
Bar Association's East European Law Initiative, also asked her to look into
whether a leading congressional friend of the commonwealth's $1
billion-a-year garment industry, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.),
"improperly" used his position to block reform legislation.

,3 A spokesman for DeLay said Delay's actions are aboveboard and that DeLay
believes the proposed legislation would mean "big government" and destroy
the islands' "free-market economic growth."

Successive commonwealth governments have charged that reports of human
rights and labor abuses on the islands are exaggerated and asserted that
local authorities are adequately dealing with those that occasionally arise.

The Global Survival Network's report and the letter to Reno represent the
latest challenge to the commonwealth and its garment industry, which have
been fighting greater federal controls, private lawsuits and charges of
health violations. Class-action suits filed in January on behalf of 50,000
current and former garment workers seek to hold 18 major U.S. retailers
responsible for a "racketeering conspiracy" to produce clothing in
sweatshop conditions on the commonwealth's main island, Saipan.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) proposed legislation in February to impose
federal immigration and minimum wage laws on the commonwealth. Last month,
a bipartisan group including Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) and Rep. Bob
Franks (R-N.J.) introduced a bill to end the ability of foreign-owned
factories, using "ill-treated indentured labor" and materials from China,
to put "Made in U.S.A." labels on their clothing and avoid duties and
quotas at an annual cost to the United States of $200 million in revenue
and 20,000 jobs.

Under a 1976 "covenant" with the United States, the commonwealth sets its
minimum wage -- now $3.05 an hour -- and is exempt from federal immigration
laws. That has allowed it to bring in 38,000 foreign guest workers, mostly
from the Philippines and China. They do most of the work in the private
sector and outnumber the 27,000 native islanders and other U.S. citizens,
who have a 16 percent unemployment rate.

In carrying out the Global Survival Network's investigation, the group's
director, Steven R. Galster, posed as a clothing buyer from New York and
used a hidden camera to videotape visits to garment factories and meetings
with industry officials on Saipan.

The videotape shows Chinese women toiling at sewing machines beside huge
piles of clothing on crowded factory floors in what Galster described as
unsafe working conditions. Factory officials explain that, unlike in their
homelands, the workers cannot easily change jobs, because that requires
approval from the local government, which usually refuses.

Workers are charged up to $10,000 each by recruiters to get the jobs, which
they are told pay generous salaries "in the United States," Galster said.
The system has spawned gambling and loan-sharking by Chinese organized
crime on the islands, and some of the female garment workers have been
diverted to a burgeoning sex trade on Saipan that caters largely to
Japanese tourists, he said.

Among those interviewed with the hidden camera was Willie Tan, a powerful
Saipan garment manufacturer who has been fined by the federal government
for labor law violations. He spoke of his close relationship with DeLay,
who he said had promised to prevent any reform legislation from advancing
in the House.

"You know what Tom told me?" Tan said. "He said, 'Willie . . . I make the
schedule of the Congress. And I'm not going to put it on the schedule. . .
.' So Tom told me, 'Forget it, Willie. No chance.' "

The letter asked Reno to investigate whether DeLay "may have improperly
promised the use of his elective office to protect and defend criminal
enterprises on the island of Saipan."

DeLay's deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, said DeLay "has made it publicly
clear" he opposes the bills in question and wants to prevent federal
bureaucrats from imposing "more red tape and regulations" and "trying to
govern the islands from 12,000 miles away." He said DeLay also opposes the
minimum wage in the United States.

"They're trying to kill economic growth on the islands," Rudy said. "The
whole campaign is driven by labor unions that hope these jobs will move
from Saipan to Philadelphia. In reality, they're going to move to the
Philippines."


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