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

Japko had met the struggling Chinese woman at the Immanuel United Methodist Church, which Yin attended on the few Sundays she was free from her factory post and the toil of inspecting finished garments. "A lot of Sundays they wouldn't let her come," Japko says. "She had to sneak out."

With help from Japko and her church, Yin somehow broke free of her contract last spring. She retrieved about $700 from a Saipan bank--all she'd managed to save up after more than a year and six months of constant labor--and boarded a plane back to China.

Japko says she watched as a garment factory official returned to Yin the passport confiscated when she'd arrived on the island. Holding the workers' passports hostage, as much as anything, demonstrated to Japko how little freedom these garment laborers truly have.

A photograph Yin sent her friend in Texas this past Christmas shows her reunited with her two young sons--one in suspenders, the other holding a soccer ball--and her husband, a serious-looking man in a sport coat and tie, standing in front of a grove of pink-blossomed trees in a hospital yard somewhere in Beijing. "So many of our people hope to go to a rich country and work and earn money," she writes in the accompanying letter, pointing out that in China she would make only $80 a month as a nurse. "A wife or husband goes [to] Korea or Japan working. Some of it is not legally."

Japko thought she'd left Saipan and its problems far behind when she returned to Texas last year. It's eight time zones from Dallas, or, as she puts it, "a long way away." But she has been drawn back to her recollections of the scenic island, as Saipan's human rights abuses and substandard labor conditions have surfaced, however weakly, in Washington.

Over the past six months, Armey and DeLay have been mounting a spirited defense of the status quo in the Marianas despite well-documented claims by Clinton administration officials, church groups, and citizens such as Japko that the islands have become a national disgrace.

The two powerful Texans have staked out a high-profile stance in favor of leaving the island's garment industry alone.

The Marianas' garment factories exploit the commonwealth's exemption from a number of American labor and immigration laws, allowing the factories--most of which are owned by Chinese or South Korean nationals--to pay less than the minimum wage and ship nearly $800 million worth of clothes annually to the United States.

The arrangement is unique to the Marianas. Its minimum wage is about $2 per hour less than the U.S. wage of $5.15 an hour--and even lower rates are set for maids and farm workers.

Because the Marianas are a U.S. territory, the blouses, cotton trousers, wool suits, and other finished clothes--which are free of import quotas and duties that would otherwise add up to $100 million a year--proudly display the label "Made in the USA."

Dozens of high-quality designer labels have contracted with Saipan's 28 recognized garment manufacturers, including Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, Abercrombie & Fitch, Nautica, and Levi Strauss. (Several "pirate" factories are believed to operate in the shadows.) The island has become a center of production for high-priced goods because they are exempt from tariffs that would be charged if the garments were assembled in, say, China.

Armey and DeLay, opposing a Clinton administration proposal to bring the Marianas under U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws, wrote a letter last year to Gov. Frolian Tenorio (the top Marianas official who was replaced last month by a relative, Pedro Tenorio). They assured Tenorio they would block any move to reform the Marianas' unique wage and immigration laws.

The administration's proposed changes, they wrote, "are counter to the principles of the Republican Party, and this Congress has no intention of voting on such legislation."

Given their clout in the majority party, Armey and DeLay have made good on that promise. An aide to U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who has been active in exposing the truth about the Marianas, says he hasn't even been able to get a hearing scheduled on the matter.

The trips DeLay and the five senior Armey staff members have made to the islands have been on the Marianas government's tab, trips typically costing $4,000 to $6,000 per person. Most got rooms at the Hyatt Regency Saipan, a $250-to-$2,500-a-night luxury hotel that, as its Web site seductively notes, "lies on 14 acres of lush tropical garden, lagoons, and a magnificent beach," with amenities such as a championship golf course and snorkeling above coral reefs.

The Nation, which published an article last month appropriately titled "Congress' Beach Boys," pointed out that more than 70 congressional and party officials--mostly Republicans--have traveled to the island on these all-expenses-paid trips over the last two years, along with squadrons of conservative journalists and think-tank types. The magazine described the trips as a "lavishly funded public relations effort by the island's governor...Numerous junketeers have come back singing the praises of the [Marianas]."

Perhaps none more brazenly than DeLay.
Returning last month from his fact-finding trip, a mission on which he took his wife and daughter and got in two rounds of golf at the first-class Lao Loa Bay Golf Resort, DeLay blasted critics of what he called Saipan's "free market success." He went on to explain how he wants to use a set of Chinese-owned sweatshops on a far-off U.S. territory--factories manned by low-paid Chinese or Sri Lankan indentured servants living in squalor--as a model for Mexican labor camps here on the mainland.

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