"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
Abramoff was an uber-connected Republican-aligned lobbyist; Rove is
President Bush's top political advisor, and Ken Mehlman is the chair of
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
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
"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."
To grasp the moral bankruptcy of the public Tom DeLay, the House
majority leader, you only have to know about Frank Murkowski and
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
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.