News/US: Saipan factories face test in Congress

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Subject: News/US: Saipan factories face test in Congress
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Tue Jun 29 1999 - 17:01:39 EDT

Saipan factories face test in Congress
Clothing sweatshops run under U.S. flag but do not pay minimum wages
By John Yaukey, Gannett News Service
The Detroit News, June 25, 1999

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands -- They arrive poor and exhausted at the
small airport here. They come from China, Bangladesh and the Philippines to
this remote U.S. territory to work in the foreign-owned garment factories
making clothes for The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and other apparel companies.

But even the humblest ambitions are easily dashed here.

After they are bused to guarded barracks ringed with razor wire, many of
the workers drawn by the hope of escaping poverty find themselves toiling
12 to 15 hours a day in cramped 90-degree sewing galleys. Some say they
struggle under nearly impossible work quotas for wages often denied those
who can't keep pace.

Complainers face deportation back home, where job recruiters and loan
sharks wait for the thousands of dollars they're owed for finding the work
and covering the travel costs. Far from home, unaware of their rights and
unable to speak English, the foreign workers here are completely vulnerable.

"You are totally at the mercy of your employer here," said Lucy Leetan, who
fled the garment industry several months ago to work as a maid. "If you are
working for cruel people there is little you can do. I found someone who
could help me. Most others can't."

Welcome to Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the only place in
America where a local government controls its own borders and wages.

For garment makers, that means being able to pay workers $3.05 an hour
instead of the federal minimum wage of $5.15 while shipping products to
U.S. markets free of duties and quotas.

As a result, Saipan, the largest of the commonwealth islands, has become
peppered with highly lucrative Chinese and Korean-owned garment factories
that produce close to $1 billion in clothing a year, supplying about 2
percent of the American market, according to the U.S. Interior Department.

What angers many of the human rights groups that visit here is that this is
all done under the U.S. flag with the blessing of some of the most powerful
members of Congress.

Discouraged by failed reform attempts, the Clinton administration is
pushing for a federal takeover of the territory's labor and immigration
controls. But it needs congressional approval for that, and Saipan has
powerful allies on Capitol Hill.

Saipan's garment manufacturers claim they have been unjustly vilified by
exaggerated stories of worker abuse. They say a federal takeover would doom
the territory's largest industry.

"We've been broad-brushed as slave drivers, and that's just not the case,"
said Richard Pierce, chairman of the Saipan Garment Manufacturers'
Association and a former garment factory owner. "Like any labor-intensive
industry, there are occasional labor problems. But the industry is making
progress. Isn't it smarter to solve the problems rather than wipe out the
entire industry with a takeover?"

Congress may answer that question sometime this summer when it convenes
hearings on the labor and immigration regulations that have allowed Saipan
to import so many desperately poor workers from Asia to fill its garment

The Northern Marianas was granted control over its wages and borders 25
years ago to boost its economy by keeping out immigrant labor. But the
opposite has happened: the vast majority of private-sector workers are
foreign while unemployment among locals hovers around 15 percent.

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