News/US/CNMI: Settlement Over Saipan Sweatshops

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Subject: News/US/CNMI: Settlement Over Saipan Sweatshops
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Fri Oct 08 1999 - 11:08:17 EDT


Settlement Over Saipan Sweatshops
By Dara Akiko Williams
October 6, 1999

LOS ANGELES(AP) Five clothing retailers including Ralph Lauren and Donna
Karan on Wednesday agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over poor
working conditions at sweatshops in the U.S. territory of Saipan.

The companies join four other retailers that have already agreed to pay for
independent monitoring of Saipan's garment industry in an effort to comply
with American labor laws and international human rights treaties.

Litigation is pending against factories in Saipan and several other U.S.
companies including The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Wal-Mart, said Al
Meyerhoff, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

"Nine of the nation's premier fashion houses have agreed to do the right
thing in Saipan," Meyerhoff said. "The other retailers have some explaining
to do why they don't agree to this plan to clean up intolerable factories
in Saipan."

The agreement requires the approval of a federal judge.

The companies agreeing to the terms on Wednesday were Ralph Lauren,
Phillips-Van Heusen, Bryland L.P., Donna Karan International and The Dress
Barn Inc. The retailers who agreed to the settlement in June were Nordstrom
Inc., J. Crew Group Inc., Cutter & Buck Inc. and Gymboree Corp.

Also Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder ruled that the case
would be transferred to Honolulu. Some defense lawyers had argued the case
should be heard in Saipan, while Meyerhoff countered that an impartial jury
would be difficult to find there.

The settlement calls for retailers to establish a fund to finance the
independent monitoring program, provide money to the workers, create a
public education campaign and pay attorneys' fees.

Workers will be protected from what Meyerhoff described as indentured
servitude.

Young women are often recruited from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and
Thailand with promises of good wages and agree to be brought to Saipan for
a fee, sometimes as high as $10,000.

The women then agree to pay off that fee with their wages, he said. The
settlement requires factory owners to ensure that employees have not paid a
recruitment fee and to pay the fee if workers have been brought to them
through recruitment fees.

About 14,000 sweatshop workers, mostly young women, are currently on the
island, but the class-action lawsuit represents about 50,000 women,
including past workers, Meyerhoff said.

Representative of the five companies agreeing to the settlement Wednesday
did not return phone messages after business hours or were unreachable for
comment.

Saipan is a 13-mile-long Western Pacific island in the Northern Marianas.
Labor activists claim that 32 Saipan factories mostly owned by Chinese,
Japanese and Korean subcontractors stamp clothing with "Made in the USA"
tags, which makes consumers believe the items were made in compliance with
U.S. labor laws.

The Northern Marianas, seized from Japan in World War II, negotiated a
commonwealth relationship with Washington that left control of immigration
and minimum wages in local hands. It also exempted Saipan's exports from
U.S. duties and quotas that limit imports.

Melanie Orhant
morhant@igc.org
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