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A Step Forward for Workers
on the Marianas Islands
“US Appalled by Abuse on Tiny Island;
Administration Threatens Crackdown
for US-Affiliated Commonwealth.”
That headline ran in the Washington Post in 1994. But it wasn’t until last month—13 years later—that the House of Representatives finally passed a bill to begin to address labor abuses on the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a chain of islands in the North Pacific that includes Saipan.
The Marianas Loophole
For more than a decade, the thousands of workers—most of them young women— who traveled to CNMI from China, Bangladesh, and the Philippines found themselves caught in a tragic loophole. Because CNMI is a commonwealth of the United States, many garment factories have located there to manufacture duty-free, and the clothing produced on the islands can advertise itself as “Made in the USA.”
However, the islands have been thus far exempt from US federal labor laws, immigration policies, or minimum wage standards. Workers have for twenty years reported a brutal system of human trafficking, sweatshops, forced prostitution, and forced abortions associated with the factories on CNMI.
Many poor workers were enticed by recruiters to pay enormous sums for an opportunity to work in “America,” only to discover upon arrival in CNMI that they were in a situation of forced servitude and would be paid wages too low to ever repay their debts. Some were forced to live in crowded, dirty housing surrounded by barbed wire.
Bill H.R. 2, the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, passed the House in January with a several-year window for bringing the Marianas Islands up to US minimum wage
standards. (The current minimum wage in the Commonwealth is set at $3.05 an hour, and some workers are paid even less.) As of Jan. 31, a similar bill is on its way to the Senate, and a Senate hearing concerning labor conditions on the Northern Marianas has been scheduled for February.
The hearings will assess the current state of affairs on the islands, and begin to consider the adjustments to customs, immigration, and labor laws that would bring full protections to the workers on CNMI. Over the past couple years, World Trade Organization agreements have prompted many factory owners to move production off the islands to China. As island factories close, foreign workers are at risk of being stranded on CNMI, without any way to earn a living or to return home.
But why did it take so long for workers on CNMI to be brought under the purview of US labor law? For more than a decade, efforts to reform the islands’ labor and immigration laws were impeded by now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his congressional allies.
The Green America Connection
Though the future of CNMI is uncertain, if the minimum wage bill becomes law, it will close one chapter in a story in which Green America played a key role for more than nine years. After we published the second edition of our Guide to Ending Sweatshops in 1998, Dennis Greenia, our publications director, started to follow Abramoff’s dirty dealings, including the lobbyist’s role in perpetuating labor abuses and human trafficking on CNMI.
Greenia’s research helped reporters, authors, and investigators break the story about Abramoff and his colleagues, and hold them accountable for their actions. Read Dennis Greenia’s Daily Kos entries at dengre.dailykos.com.