J. Jill, Ann Taylor, Liz Claiborne: Made By Slaves, Backed by Congress

By David Swanson

The Spring 2006 issue of Ms. Magazine contains an article by Rebecca Clarren about some beautiful tropical islands described by disgraced House Majority Leader Tom Delay as “a perfect petri dish of capitalism.” What’s so perfect about Saipan and the other 13 Northern Mariana Islands? Primarily this: items produced there can carry the label “Made in USA” and be sold in the U.S. without tariffs or quotas, but the scandalously low U.S. minimum wage does not apply, and the pathetically minimal rights of immigrants and workers in the U.S. do not apply. There are no labor unions. Any worker can be terminated and deported at any time for no cause.

The workers, mostly Chinese women, some of whose stories are told in the Ms. Magazine article, sew clothing for J. Jill, Elie Tahari, Ann Taylor, Liz Claiborne, The Gap, and Ralph Lauren, among others. They pay so much money to obtain work and for shelter and food, that they can labor for a decade and still not pay it back. They serve, therefore, as indentured servants, sharing rooms and beds, lacking health care, and working extra unpaid hours for the reward of being permitted to also work paid overtime. Pregnancy is unacceptable, costs of it not covered, and amateur abortion encouraged.

The island of Saipan does great business in prostitution for Asian businessmen and American soldiers. Approximately 90 percent of the prostitutes, according to Ms., are former Chinese garment workers. Others had been recruited for jobs like waitressing but were forced into prostitution instead.

Over the past decade, 29 bills in Congress have sought to apply a minimum wage standard and/or immigration law to the Mariana Islands or to deny use of “Made in USA” to items produced there. Every one of these bills has failed. Some have won support in the Senate but been blocked by the House Resources Committee. Others have won the support of a majority of House Members but still been killed in that same committee.

Guess who earned $11 million in fees from the Marianas government and garment manufacturers? A fellow by the name of Jack Abramoff. The Ms. Magazine article details his extensive lobbying of the Republican leadership in the House, and in particular of Tom Delay.

But DeLay has gone down, and there is hope that Congress, such as it is, might finally manage to act (that is, go on record as legislating reforms that Bush and Cheney will ignore). There are three bills in the House and Senate right now that would apply the U.S. minimum wage to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Ms. recommends contacting the chair and ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and Workforce and the Senate Committee on Finance. They are:

Rep. McKeon www.house.gov/writerep
Rep. Miller george.miller@mail.house.gov
Sen. Grassley http://grassley.senate.gov/webform.htm
Sen. Baucus http://baucus.senate.gov/contact/emailForm.cfm?subj=issue

Congressman Miller has asked the chair of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Richard Pombo (himself the subject of a report on ethics violations released yesterday http://www.contracostatimes.com/mld/cctimes/news/politics/14507254.htm ) to investigate Abramoff’s lobbying on behalf of the Ann Slave Taylor Islands, the Ralph Lauren Petri Dish for Plutocratic Plundering and Prostitution.

If every American who has purchased an item of clothing made by what is essentially American slave labor were to ask Pombo to hold hearings by writing to him at rpombo@mail.house.gov and by sending a letter to the editor of the Stockton Record at editor@recordnet.com it might provide some hope to the women whose stories Ms. Magazine tells.

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