Welcome to Saipan, just north of Guam, one of the islands floating in the Northern Marianas. Where warm ocean breezes blow, and thousands of destitute Asiam women work like indentured slaves to produce the clothes we buy at The Gap and Wal-Mart. According to a series of class action lawsuits filed this week in San Francisco, women workers assembling “Made in the USA” clothing are toiling in ‘hotbox’ factories, suffering physical abuse from their supervisors, including forced abortions, and living in barbed-wire compounds infested by rats. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the lawsuits claim that as many as 25,000 Asian “guest workers” have suffered violations of labor, racketeering, human rights, and business laws on Saipan. Besides Wal-Mart, other companies implicated in the lawsuit include Nordstroms, The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, May Co., Sears, and others. Most remarkable of all: this is taking place in a U.S. Commonwealth. Saipan has been part of the US for the past 24 years. As such, the island enjoys favorable US tariff and duty protections, similar to those found in the Caribbean Basin Initiative. So these sweatshops, which have been labeled “America’s worst sweatshops”, are subsidized by the US taxpayers. These women come from China, the Phillipines, Bangladesh, and Thailand. They are lured to Saipan with the promise of good wages and U.S. working conditions. What they find instead are seve day workweeks, 12 hour shifts, no overtime, substandard living conditions, and barracks with lockdowns and curfews. Many workers reportedly can’t return home because they would have to repay a $7,000 recruitmen fee. “Indentured servitude is alive and well in many parts of the world, including the United States,” said one lawyer for the workers. The lawsuit was brought by the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), and three California-based non-profits: Global Exchange, The Asian Law Caucus, and Sweatshop Watch. The Gap is quoted in the story as being “deeply concerned about the allegations.”
Deja Vu Kathy Lee! Wait till Regis hears about this one! We should all be “deeply concerned” about these new reports, and yet we continue to seek “deep discounts” from the likes of Wal-Mart. The sweat of Saipan labor soaks the clothes with labels from the North Marianas Islands. Lawyers in this class action suit claim that big retailers have avoided more than $200 million in tariffs by having clothes made in Saipan. That’s a form of corporate welfare that the rest of us pay for. Plus companies like Wal-Mart make millions in profits from marked up goods made for next to nothing by the indentured Asian women. But the answer is simple: don’t patronize stores that sell you sweatshop clothing.