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

He told a reporter for the Guam-based Pacific Daily News that the workers' barracks "by some U.S. standards could be criticized," but the garment factories he toured were air-conditioned and clean.

"I didn't see anyone sweating," DeLay said, reportedly with a laugh.

It was a picture of a palm tree on a trade journal employment ad that drew Peggy Japko and her husband to apply for their two-year contract jobs at the Commonwealth Medical Center, a government-run facility that serves as the only hospital in Saipan.

"You think, 'Wow, this looks good.' Everyone wants to escape to a tropical island," the outgoing, 41-year-old Japko recalled over coffee at a pancake house in McKinney.

The Japkos went to work as medical records administrators and took in the pleasures of their tropical paradise. The volcanic island, about 47 square miles of beaches and tropical jungle, is visited by more than 500,000 Japanese tourists a year. "It's like their Caribbean," says Japko, pointing out that Tokyo is about 1,460 miles away.

Studded with war memorials, Saipan remains littered with beached ships, tanks, and other remnants of the June 1944 invasion of 71,000 U.S. Marines, 3,400 of whom lost their lives in taking the island from the Japanese. At the island's northernmost point lies Suicide Cliff, where hundreds of Japanese civilians jumped to their death when the U.S. victory became clear.

Over the next year, Saipan became a prime base for U.S. air attacks on the Japanese islands. The Enola Gay took off from nearby Tinian, which is among the 14 islands in the Marianas chain, when it dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Although unexploded ordnance is still found on Saipan from time to time, its beautiful beaches are now occupied by the more leisure-minded. "You'd never see the garment workers and the problems from the hotels," Japko says. "There are miles and miles of roads in the jungles. You hardly know the factories are there. There aren't signs saying these are barracks or garment factories."

The locals--mostly Chamorro or Carolinian islanders--number 27,478, and 14 percent of those are unemployed, according to 1995 census statistics. Because only local citizens--who since 1986 have had the privilege of full U.S. citizenship--can legally own property on the islands, rents from the hotels and factories provide considerable incomes to some local families. "I was surprised to find the level of wealth; it was really amazing," Japko recalls.

By the most recent census, there were 31,000 non-citizen laborers on the islands, outnumbering citizens. The huge supply of imported low-wage workers has so skewed the island's economy that many of the 4,000 Marianas-born families "poor" enough to qualify for food stamps somehow manage to afford Filipino maids.

According to Japko, the work ethic among the locals is so low and the wages so uninspiring that when a McDonald's opened in 1996, "they said they were gonna hire only locals. But the locals showed up to work so infrequently that they had trouble keeping it open. Eventually, they hired Filipinos to get the work done."

Japko says she never met or much considered the garment workers until a year into her stay, when she met Yin at her church. Getting to know her was difficult, Japko recalls. "She was afraid to talk. She was afraid that she'd lose her job and be sent home deeply in debt. I said, 'I'd like to see where you live,' and she said, 'No. That's not allowed. There are guards.'"

One time Japko and several other church members forced themselves past the armed Bangladeshi guards at Yin's dorm, and left her and her 15 roommates enough food for a holiday party. The workers got home from work that day at about 2 a.m.

"I felt morally obligated to tell someone, so we wrote to the authorities," Japko says.

The letter, composed by the Rev. Barbara Grace Ripple, the United Methodist pastor of Japko's church, took note of a host of injustices: withholding pay for transportation, housing, and food costs that ultimately swallow up most of the workers' wages; compulsory uncompensated overtime; no rest breaks; curfews; and confiscation of passports.

"If we didn't know better, we would think that Saipan was a Third World country, blatantly allowing these practices without conscience...A garment factory worker working without pay is a slave. Withholding the passport of a garment factory worker is degrading and makes a prison of the island of Saipan."

Ripple, answering a set of questions posed via e-mail this month, says, "Many of the problems can be traced to ethnic discrimination. The local people tend to look down upon those who do menial work, such as those who work as waitresses, as household help, or farmers. In the six years I have been here, I have heard children speak derogatorily about persons of other ethnic groups--people from the Philippines, Bangladesh, and China."

Crimes against those in the lower "caste" often go unpunished because of large webs of family ties and "a code that says we do not tell on a family member, no matter what crime has been committed or what hurt has been done," she says.

Ripple's letter made little headway with the government, however, which claims to be improving working conditions in the factories and defends the low wages as crucial to the country's economy.

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