Our Man in Saipan

Dick Armey thinks he's found a free-market paradise in the Marianas Islands, a U.S. territory where the workers never complain, the factories never quit, and wages are so low, even welfare mothers can hire a Filipino maid

To free-market conservatives, the Marianas--a chain of tiny, palm-shrouded islands in the western Pacific--are, well, paradise. According to this ideological spin, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas is a capitalist Eden, a Rock Candy Mountain of commerce bustling with folks willing to cut and stitch and sew in the service of hot American clothing labels such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger--as well as U.S. consumers who demand a designer tag at a bargain price.

The Marianas and its capital, Saipan, are U.S. territories, and the locals are American citizens. But--thanks be to Adam Smith--their economy isn't burdened by the mainland's lofty $5.15-an-hour minimum wage. At this luau of laissez-faire, there aren't all those heavy-handed bureaucrats enforcing the 40-hour work week or labor safety standards or other tiresome rules and edicts of big government.

The resulting prosperity has generated tax rebates for citizens and corporations alike, money that has fallen like so many lotus blossoms on a place historically long on sea breezes and short on entrepreneurial spirit.

All of this is so awe-inspiring to right-thinking individuals that five top aides of House Majority Leader Dick Armey have taken time away from fighting the dark forces in Washington to witness the invisible hand at work.

Their boss, who has made opposition to the minimum wage his political mantra, hasn't taken the 9,000-mile trip himself, although last month he dispatched his press secretary, Michelle Davis. Armey's fellow Texan and right-hand man, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, from Sugar Land, made the journey too.

Armey and DeLay had already drawn a line in the Marianas' sand last summer, when the Clinton administration began grousing about a few unpleasant side effects of Saipan's economic miracle.

The two Republicans wrote to the islands' governor how "impressed" they were with the Marianas' commitment to "advancing the principles of free markets, enterprise...tax reform and other innovative approaches to governance."

DeLay was so taken with the Saipan way of doing business that when he returned from there last month, he suggested the United States emulate the way the islands' employers ship in eager Chinese and Filipinos to fill low-wage jobs in their garment factories and hotels. He suggested the United States institute a similar "guest worker" program "where particular companies can bring Mexican workers in" to fill jobs that Americans won't take, paid at "whatever wage the market will bear."

With so much good news being generated in that far-off corner of the world--and with Armey's staff spending so much time studying it--it seemed appropriate to ring them up in Washington to learn a bit about it.

The Dallas Observer called three times last week, and three times the week before. But press chief Michelle Davis, whose taxpayer-financed job it is to talk to the press, wouldn't return a single call. Even her "Texas press" assistant declined to take a few minutes to share a word or two about all the wonderful things Armey's office has seen taking root in Saipan.

Given all the job-seeking Mexicans in this state, it seemed that Saipan's economic miracle would be of particular relevance here.

But try as we might to get Armey or his peripatetic staff to respond, we were unable to establish communications with our hometown congressman. We were unable to raise our man in Saipan.

And there are good reasons why.

Two years ago, Yin Shan-zi thought she would be spending some time in the United States fulfilling a not uncommon dream among educated men and women in China.

The 34-year-old nurse and wife of a Beijing cardiologist had wanted to work in an American office and refine her English. That explains why she was willing to pay to get a job--forking over $4,000 to a recruiter who agreed to deliver her to a position in Saipan.

What Yin found, though, was something lifted from a Charles Dickens novel--or an account of U.S. labor conditions circa 1898, not 1998. Rather than being directed to a secretarial job, Yin was put to work in the Venus garment factory--which was just the start of her odyssey into what Clinton administration officials say is a corrupt and pitiless system of indentured servitude in Saipan's garment industry.

Yin entered a world of 18-hour workdays and payless paydays. Her wages shrunk to almost nothing after her employer deducted charges for room, board, and transportation. Those rare times she wasn't at the factory, she lived in a tiny room shared with 15 other women in a barracks guarded by armed men and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. A close look at the fence indicated just what the guards were guarding: The strands of barbs angled inward.

Bound to fulfill a two-year contract she signed during her recruitment, Yin had no option of quitting. Tied to specific employers, Saipan's "guest workers" don't have the liberty to shop around for another job.

"She'd tell me she worked 'many hours,'" recalls Peggy Japko, a nursing student who returned to McKinney last year after two years of living and working in Saipan. "She was so tired, she'd start crying. Sometimes they [the garment shop's managers] would forget to feed them."

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