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Saturday, 07 October 2006

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"American Sweatshops" ~ Comments

There has been an active Republican effort to keep wages down and labour laws lax in US territories like the Marianas. It's something to think about the next time you hear some wingnut rhetoric about how soft-hearted liberals are perpetuating poverty while it's the Randian Republicans who are really the ones with the hearts for the poor... (and sadly, also something to think about the next time you look at the label and see "Made in the USA" -- thanks to Abramoff's pals, that's not synonymous with made according to the generally accepted labour practices of the United States... you know, things like workers not being beaten at work, that sort of thing.)

Let's take a look at some of the mechanics of how that came to be. Susan Ralston recently resigned when it became clear that White House ties to convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff were far more numerous than previously reported.

Abramoff's lobbying team, for instance, team urged White House officials, including Rove and Mehlman, to essentially fire Allen Stayman, an employee of the U.S. State Department who advocated labor reforms in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Abramoff represented the Marianas Islands government as a lobbyist. "Mehlman said he would get him fired," one Abramoff lobbyist wrote to another.

On July 9, 2001, Ralston e-mailed Abramoff that the Office of Presidential Personnel and the State Department had "worked out a deal" and that Stayman would "be out in 4 months." Stayman's appointment was not renewed.

Abramoff was an uber-connected Republican-aligned lobbyist; Rove is President Bush's top political advisor, and Ken Mehlman is the chair of the RNC.

More background on the Marianas:

At the end of World War II, the U.S. acquired the islands, which are located off the coast of booming Asia. To encourage development and self-sufficiency Congress exempted the islands from the very kinds of U.S. business regulations and oversight DeLay despised. Even today the island's minimum wage is only $3.05. Other work and safety regulations either do not apply at all or are rarely enforced.

In short, the Marianas embodied many of the key ideals DeLay and other House Republicans were pushing in their 1994 Contract With America.

For Asian sweatshop operators, the Marianas became the Promised Land incarnate. Since the islands were officially U.S. territory, garment factories there were able to tag their products with the coveted "Made in the USA" label. No rules, no regulators, no inspectors, no health and safety laws. What more could a sweatshop operator ask for?

The opportunity was quickly recognized by Asian sweatshop operators like Hong Kong's Tan Holdings, run by garment mogul Willie Tan. Deep in the lush jungles, far from the island's white beaches and luxury hotels, garment factories quickly set up shop. They staffed their factories with workers from China and the Philippines with promises of work in the US. But, workers soon discovered that the work contracts they signed consigned them to near-indentured servitude deep in the Marianas steamy jungles. Wages were low, hours were long. The companies docked workers' pay for housing, food, medical treatments and other charges. The low wages and high deductions made it nearly impossible for workers to save enough money to return home.

None of this was a secret back home in the U.S. In 1998, ABC, CNN, the BBC and the New York Times each confirmed reports of forced labor, sex slaves and domestic forced servitude among the Marianas' so-called "guest workers."

According to the US Department of Labor, the indigenous US population of Marianas have an unemployment rate that hovers continuously around 14%. The unemployment rate of the island's 40,000 so-called guest workers on the other hand is only 5%.

[...]

The Marianas became a pedal-to-the-metal cause for DeLay and another cash cow for Abramoff. Abramoff and his team, which now included DeLay's former chief of staff Bill Jarrell, swung into action.

[...]

Despite the growing public awareness of work conditions in the islands, Tom DeLay's defense of the status quo remained unshaken. In 1998 DeLay co-authored a letter with House Majority Leader Dick Army (R-TX). The two men, writing to the islands' governor, expressed how "impressed" they were with the Marianas' "commitment to advancing the principles of free markets, enterprise, tax reform and other innovative approaches to governance."

Such high level Washington support was not lost on sweatshop operators. In 1999, a human rights group quoted a Marianas sweatshop operator with an upbeat attitude about Tom DeLay's growing influence in Congress. An investigator for the group posed as an investor who was considering investing in Mariana garment operations. The investigator asked the sweatshop operator about the outlook for Congress applying U.S. workplace rules to the Marianas. The garment factory operator was not worried.

"I have a real good friend of Tom DeLay," he said. "the Majority Whip. And Tom tell me, as long as we are in power they (Democrats in Congress) can't even see the light at the end of the tunnel. So, now it going to be two years, because Tom become real powerful this Congress so guarantee next two years no problem. Tom said if they elect me as majority whip, I make the schedule of Congress. And I'm not going to put it on the schedule. So, Tom told me, forget it, not a chance.." (Contemporary Women's Issues 1999)

While Abramoff's team wined and dined groups from Washington at luxury Mariana resorts, deep in the jungles the garment factories continued their operations unregulated and unabated. Upon his return from the islands on one such trip a reporter asked DeLay about alleged sweatshop conditions there. "I saw some of those factories," DeLay responded. "They were air conditioned. I didn't see anyone sweating." Delay laughed at his own joke and walked off.

In 1999 the battle moved from the Republican controlled Congress to the courts. A suit filed by human rights groups representing the Mariana guest workers was settled in US District Court. The suit described the Marianas (also known as Saipan) as "America's worst sweatshop, replete with beatings, forced abortions, vermin-infested worker quarters, barbed wire and armed guards where workers put in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week."

Mark Shields:

To grasp the moral bankruptcy of the public Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, you only have to know about Frank Murkowski and Saipan.

Today, Frank Murkowki is the governor of Alaska, but from 1980 to 2002, he was a conservative Republican senator from Alaska.

How conservative? His voting record earned him zero ratings from organized labor's AFL-CIO and the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, and perfect 100s from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Conservative Union.

But as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Frank Murkowski became furious at the abusive sweatshop conditions endured by workers, overwhelmingly immigrants, in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, of which Saipan is the capital.

[...]

Moved by the sworn testimony of U.S. officials and human-rights advocates that the 91 percent of the workforce who were immigrants -- from China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh -- were being paid barely half the U.S. minimum hourly wage and were forced to live behind barbed wire in squalid shacks minus plumbing, work 12 hours a day, often seven days a week, without any of the legal protections U.S. workers are guaranteed, Murkowski wrote a bill to extend the protection of U.S. labor and minimum-wage laws to the workers in the U.S. territory of the Northern Marianas.

So compelling was the case for change the Alaska Republican marshaled that in early 2000, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Murkowski worker reform bill.

But one man primarily stopped the U.S. House from even considering that worker-reform bill: then-House Republican Whip Tom DeLay.

According to law firm records recently made public, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, paid millions to stop reform and keep the status quo, met personally at least two dozen times with DeLay on the subject in one two-year period. The DeLay staff was often in daily contact with Abramoff.

So even an arch-conservative like Murkowski thought that US protectorates and territories like the Marianas shouldn't be America's sweatshops, but the Republican power elite -- Abramoff, Rove, DeLay, Mehlman, etc -- blocked his reforms. And so today major companies can have both sweatshop labour AND their "Made in the USA" labels.

posted at: 02:28 Sat 07/Oct/2006

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