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George Miller D-Calif. Acting U. The whir of hundreds of sewing machines reverberates in the thick, dusty air at the RIFU garment factory. Inside this large warehouse, behind a guarded metal fence, employees— most of them Chinese women—cut, sew, iron and fold blouses with such efficiency and focus that they seem like machinery themselves.
From piles of orange and pink fabric, the workers will produce over 15, garments today for J. Jill, Elie Tahari and Ann Taylor. Counters above the sewing machines indicate how many pieces the women have completed. Many of them borrow the money—a small fortune in China, where most are recruited—from lenders who charge as much as 20 percent interest. Increasingly, workers are filing formal complaints that they have not received their wages, with some women going without paychecks for over five months.
Still, workers at RIFU and other Saipan garment factories labor six days a week, sometimes up to 20 hours a day. The American consumers who wear the clothes these women produce probably have never heard of Saipan or the 13 other islands that comprise the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands CNMI. Located just north of the U. After the war, the islands became a United Nations territory, administered by the United States.
There were two critical exceptions, however: The U. But to many Americans, adding USA to the label implies that goods are produced by Americans, not by foreign guest workers toiling under sweatshop conditions thousands of miles away.
The guest worker deation means that these foreign laborers can remain on the islands for an indefinite period but are not eligible for U. The local Department of Labor and Immigration, chronically underfunded, is of little help to them, taking six months to a year to complete reviews of complaints. There are no labor unions. At its peak, the industry annually exported to the U.
Considering that the success of the industry was tied closely to its low wages and exploitative guest worker program—and the fact that it was exempt from tariffs or quotas on exports to the U. Enter Jack Abramoff, who hardly needs an introduction. Caught in the crosshairs of one of the biggest congressional scandals in a century, the Georgetown-educated lawyer was once a high-flying Republican lobbyist on Capitol Hill; he now awaits sentencing on multiple criminal charges to which he has pled guilty: bribing public officials, fraud and tax evasion. While at the Washington, D.
But Abramoff, using his close ties to Republicans in the House, worked mightily to block such reforms. Many of his efforts focused on the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over U. Although members of both houses of Congress and both political parties repeatedly pushed to bring the Marianas under federal immigration and minimum-wage laws, not a single legislative attempt has succeeded—most killed in the House Resources Committee.
Twice—in and again in — the U. Even a bill, sponsored by New Jersey Republican Rep. Bob Franks, died in the Resources Committee, despite having co-sponsors—a substantial majority of House members, and enough to ensure passage on the floor. Abramoff also cultivated powerful allies in the House leadership, notably Tom DeLay, who, as majority whip at the time, could keep a bill off the House floor even if the Resources Committee voted in its favor.
DeLay himself, the billing records showed, met or talked with Abramoff about the Marianas at least two dozen times in and alone. As Rep. Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee and a leading sponsor of reform legislation, told Ms. With the election of George W. Bush inAbramoff gained additional connections. And his clients got exactly what they hoped for. As many as people connected to the U. Congress—members themselves, or their staffers—traveled to the islands, sometimes with spouses or other family, including nearly half the Republican members of the House Resources Committee or their staffers.
Among the visitors were DeLay, his wife and daughter, and six of his aides. Even today, DeLay remains a booster. When Ms. At p. These women eschew the more expensive, factory-owned barracks in favor of tiny homes constructed of corrugated tin, with thin wooden doors. In one tin dwelling, three women share a queen-sized bed that rests on a slab of concrete. Nine people share one toilet. The only foods I can afford to buy are rice and some very cheap precooked vegetables.
Most have only a thirdor fourth-grade education. Of the nearly 30 workers interviewed by Ms. Despite the squalid living conditions, the young guest workers want to stay at their jobs long enough to make their sacrifices worthwhile. These days, pregnancy is still highly problematic for guest workers.
Many believe that if they get pregnant their employers will not renew their contracts for another year. Two years ago, she became pregnant while visiting her boyfriend back in China. When she refused, Chen was fired. At least four acupuncture clinics offer pills to induce abortions, according to a local translator and former garment worker.
The monitoring program, while an important effort, has had mixedaccording to a U. The monitoring board has discretion to put factories on probation, but that has occurred only once. Moreover, the program will sunset in Julyand there are no other proposals on the table to replace it. Considering that the settlement was a class action on behalf of thousands of workers, no one can expect a large sum. In Januarythe GATT treaty, which had regulated all global trade in textiles and apparel sinceexpired, eliminating quotas on textile exports to the U.
The Northern Marianas had been attractive to garment makers because of its exemption from such quotas and from tariffs on goods shipped to the U. Without those advantages, manufacturers are increasingly moving to such places as China, Vietnam and Cambodia, where they can pay even lower wages. Some observers expect almost all factories to close bywhen a temporary restriction on Chinese apparel exports to the U. A naked Mongolian woman in a blond wig grinds her body around a silver pole. Outside the club, scantily clad Chinese girls, their hair dyed red or blond, sit on cheap white plastic chairs.
All night. Teeming with strip clubs and massage parlors, the red-light district of Saipan has a magnetic draw for Asian businessmen, and for U. Navy sailors on three-day furloughs from duty stations in the Pacific and beyond. Give me a nice lady. The only way to get tips was by picking up the money with your breasts and your vagina. And there was a VIP room in the back where people could have sex.
She points to a yellowed building with boarded-up windows and a security camera in the stairwell just off a busy street. There, she and the other strippers, all young Filipinas, were locked inside during the day and not allowed to leave except for work. Eventually, she and a friend escaped their employer after one of them rappelled down from a second-story balcony, us ing a rope made out of pants.
They were expected to have sex with as many as four men per day and given but one daily meal of noodles. No evidence of sweatshops as portrayed by the national media. Reformer Rep. George Miller, however, heard completely different stories on his visit to the islands. He and others hope that the indictment of Abramoff offers a chance for real change see sidebar, to the right. So far, Pombo has yet to hold a hearing, but Miller says he will continue to push.
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