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

But when Japko left Saipan last year, she left behind another Chinese garment worker friend, Li Zhen Hua, who also borrowed $4,000 for the right to a $300-a-month job. That enormous debt in China is what keeps her enslaved in Saipan today.

The 29-year-old's letters to her American friend--sent in envelopes from the Uno Moda Corp., a garment factory--tell a story as bleak as Yin's: "I am very tired. I want to go back to my country but I can't because we must be keep [sic] two years...I change my job from line to complete dept. Very busy. So hard. Every day work up to 1:30. I've to work on Sunday. Too much to respond to your letters."

By all accounts, the unusual set of rules and regulations that has built Saipan into an Americanized Kuwait--where low-paid, second-class foreigners do the drudge work--did not come about by design.

The "covenant" under which the Marianas joined the United States was approved by 78 percent of the people in 1976. It went into effect in 1986, when U.S. citizenship was extended to the islanders.

Under the agreement, the islands were subject to all U.S. laws, with a few important exceptions originally designed to help the country catch up with U.S. economic standards--including exemptions from minimum wage laws and customs restrictions. The Marianas negotiators were also concerned that people from neighboring Asian countries would flood to Saipan, rather than the U.S. mainland, thereby altering the islands' cultural identity. So the islands were given control of their own immigration policies.

The garment industry didn't surface until 10 years after the pact was approved, when entrepreneurs found a way to exploit this extraordinary series of loopholes. "Someone finally realized what they had," says David North, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs. "An Asian-owned, Asian-manned garment industry was transplanted to U.S. soil."

Figures compiled by the U.S. Commerce Department show that the value of garments shipped to the United States from the Marianas has grown steadily--an amazing 40 percent in 1997 alone--and that the garments now account for about 5 percent of finished clothing shipped into the mainland United States. The wholesale value of garments shipped from the Marianas this year could easily top $1 billion.

"They said they didn't want to be overwhelmed by immigrants, but they have used their powers to overwhelm themselves with cheap foreign labor," says an aide to Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat.

Complaints of poor worker conditions have followed the Saipan garment industry from the start. In 1992, Willie Tan, a Hong Kong businessman who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, settled a case brought by the U.S. Labor Department by agreeing to pay garment workers $9 million in back wages for unpaid overtime. Tan's workers were toiling 85 hours a week in Saipan without overtime pay.

Photos taken last August by Stephen Fischel, a U.S. State Department worker, paint a bleak picture of garment workers' barracks: open sewers; garment workers packed two to a bed; filthy toilets; dilapidated kitchens outfitted with rotting, rusted sinks and tables; jury-rigged electrical lines.

A report released last month by the bipartisan, congressionally created U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform concluded that foreign contract workers in the Marianas have been "easily exploited" by the local population. "There are numerous reported cases of retaliation against workers filing complaints," the report states. "Foreign contract workers report being victims of such crimes as rape, assault, and forced prostitution by those who have recruited them to work in the [Marianas]. There are numerous documented cases of foreign workers paying exorbitant recruitment fees in their home country...In many cases the entire recruitment was a scam, with no job existing when the worker arrives in the [Marianas]."

A contract obtained by the Interior Department that was signed by a Chinese carpenter forbids dating or marrying, participating in any religious or political activities, and requesting a change in work or increase in wages.

Worse yet, farm laborers and household workers are paid an even lower wage, about $1 an hour, the immigration commission report points out. "Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation...There is also ample evidence that prostitution is one of the occupations practiced by some female contract workers in bars and nightclubs."

Says the Rev. Ripple, "They are easily controlled by their employers, who for the most part are not U.S. citizens, who do not do business in the Western way and do not honor human rights and respect the individual as we do.

"As one example, a local person told me she could get all the workers I might need from Nepal, and there would be no charge to me at all. What that means is all expenses would be paid by those workers, paid up-front in loans or by selling all they have."

Since the days of the Reagan administration, official Washington has been concerned about how this Asian garment industry, transplanted to U.S. soil, has affected domestic textile and apparel manufacturers, which are already fighting to compete with imports from low-wage Third World countries.

A July 1997 Interior Department report pointed out that advocates for the Marianas' garment industry sometimes argue that their factories compete with China and other Asian countries. But this is not the case, the report concludes.

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