Saipan Child Labor

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Saipan Child Labor
By Kathy Torchen

The American territory of Saipan, located in the Pacific Ocean, is another site of slave labor. This small island is home to tens of thousands of workers who produce clothing for giant American companies such as The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, J. Crew, Nordstrom and Ralph Lauren. It also had subpoenas issued against 17 retailers who subcontract work there. The attraction for retailers to this island is in part the fact that its minimum wage is $3.05/hour, compared to $5.15/hour on the mainland. Sadly, garment production in Saipan continues to increase, already exceeding that of Malaysia and Jamaica. Although the legal limit on foreign garment workers is 11,000 recent estimates exceed 15,000, and the number of factories continues to go up.

The companies are accused of violating federal law by using indentured labor to produce clothing on Saipan. They are also charged with failing to pay overtime and ongoing intolerable work and living conditions. Together three lawsuits are seeking more than a billion dollars in damages, disgorgement of profits and unpaid wages.

US Activists plan to hold protests until the US minimum wage and immigration laws apply in Saipan. In January, 50,000 current and former Saipanese workers filed lawsuits against these retailers. The workers attested to slave-like working conditions that included 12-hour workdays, seven-day weeks, without overtime, and being confined to cramped barracks. Workers that complained of these conditions were often terminated.

Most of the workers are "young women from China who have been promised by recruiters that the are going to good jobs in America. Instead many find themselves kept behind barbed wire, in rat-infested labor camps, and put to work in huge Chinese- and Korean-owned garment factories; often under sweatshop conditions; making clothes for the American market".

Additionally, workers on Saipan are forced to have abortions to keep their jobs. "With 11,000 Chinese workers here, I have never seen a Chinese garment factory worker have a baby," said human rights worker Eric Gregoire.

The garments being prduced in Saipan can legally be labeled "Made in The USA" because Saipan is allowed to set its own immigration policy. "It has created a plantation economy, dependent on the massive importation on a continuing basis of low-paid, vulnerable, short-term indentured workers," said Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. "That's not American."

A lawyer representing the workers said the companies have claimed for years to know nothing of the conditions of the factories or the workers. Some companies, such as the Gap, have already issued statements denouncing their knowledge of these conditions. They stated, "The Gap does not tolerate this type of conduct in the factories where (its subcontractors) do business.'' Additionally, a Wal-Mart spokesperson claimed it has a "zero-tolerance position with regard to illegal or unethical working conditions".

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has reprimanded these companies with over 1,000 citations over the past five years for providing their workers with substandard living conditions. However, even though Saipan is part of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Marina Islands, OSHA and other similar organizations have had to deal with many obstacles in their investigations. OSHA has issued many citations for labor violations. One of which was for contaminated drinking water in factories with e.coli bacteria.

The people of Saipan deserve to be treated with the respect all human beings deserve. Organizations such as OSHA are important in working to ensure that the natural rights of all humans are being upheld. Hopefully, the workers of Saipan will get the justice they are entitled to soon.

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