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Siskind's Immigration Bulletin - May 1999

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MORE NEWS ON NORTHERN MARIANAS ISLANDS SWEATSHOP LAWSUIT


In early May, a federal court issued subpoenas against 17 clothing retailers and manufacturers named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in January. The lawsuit contends that the defendants make promises to potential foreign workers to lure them into working on the island, and then force them to live in barracks and threaten them with termination whenever they complain about the substandard conditions.

The Northern Marianas Islands, or Saipan, is a U.S. owned territory, but is not subject to U.S. labor or immigration laws. The advantage of manufacturing clothing in the territory is that wages are less than what must be paid in the U.S., but the clothing is not subject to Customs duties and may be labeled "Made in the U.S.A." Among the defendants named in the suit are the Gap, J. Crew, Tommy Hilfiger and Wal-Mart. While many of the defendants have not publicly addressed the suit, those that have make the argument that worker conditions on Saipan are better than they are in the workers’ home countries. While this may be the case, the plaintiffs still contend the 12-hour days, 7 days a week, spent working form the basis for a suit.

There are three suits on this matter. The primary claim was filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, (RICO) a law that was originally passed to combat organized crime but has in recent years been put to wider use.

In late May, the human rights organization Global Survival Network issued the results of an 8-month investigation into conditions on the islands. According to this report, the sweatshop conditions in the garment industry are not the only human rights violations. There is also evidence of organized crime, sexual slavery and debt bondage – the practice of forcing labor in repayment of a debt. The report prompted a letter to Attorney General Reno, signed by more than 10 organizations, including a division of the American Bar Association, calling for an investigation into the actions of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX). Such organizations claim DeLay improperly used his position to block attempts at reform legislation.

The Global Survival Network report says workers are charged as much as a $10,000 fee by recruiters who tell the workers they will receive high salaries and be in the U.S. Saipan is allowed to set its own minimum wage, currently $3.05 an hour, and while it is a U.S. territory, U.S. immigration laws are not effective there. The report also says that many female garment workers are being diverted to a growing prostitution industry on the islands.


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