In the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Territory in the western Pacific Ocean, a “guest worker” program has been in place for years. Abuses perpetrated against workers from China and Thailand by garment factories in Saipan, the CNMI’s principal island, began to be exposed in the 1990’s. The factories, which were required under local law to pay their employees only $3.05 an hour, far below the federal minimum wage, were charged with holding their employees in almost slave-like conditions, refusing to allow them to leave the “barracks” where they were forced to live, sometimes as many as eight to a room with a single bathroom shared by numerous others, and failing or refusing to pay overtime to employees who worked more than 40 hours a week.
Because of its unique relationship with the U.S., the CNMI is exempt from federal immigration and minimum wage laws, although other labor laws do apply. The Commonwealth’s government controls its own immigration. Because of the low minimum wage and the territory’s exemption from U.S. tariffs for goods manufactured in Saipan and exported to the Mainland, clothing manufacturing seemed like a good idea. Chinese and Korean companies set up shop. The importation of cheap labor from Asia under the guest worker program made the factories virtual cash cows. Promised the opportunity to work in “America,” young women from Asia with no hope of anything better borrowed from their families and paid recruiters thousands of dollars in fees for the chance to work overseas.
Ultimately the labor abuses led to class action litigation brought on behalf of the garment workers against the factories and their customers – clothing companies such as The Gap, Target, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren/Polo, Jones Apparel Group, Lane Bryant, The Limited, Nordstrom; OshKosh B’Gosh, Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Claiborne, Brooks Brothers, Calvin Klein, and others – which litigation was ultimately settled by most of the defendants. The CNMI is now headed for virtually certain federalization of its labor and immigration laws and, as a result, the factories are leaving. But the abuses of the guest worker program in Saipan present a microcosm of the system that the former Republican congressman from Texas, Tom DeLay, glowingly described as “a perfect petri dish of capitalism.”
Even before the garment abuses came to light, the guest worker program in Saipan was problematic, albeit not widely publicized. Locals, seeing an opportunity to relieve themselves of the burden of housekeeping and childrearing, hired live-in maids from the Philippines under the guest worker program. Many of the locals were recipients of federal welfare payments. Still, live-in help was so cheap they were able to afford it, and this, of course, enhanced their social stature and reinforced their notion that they were racially superior to the people who worked for them. They paid the housekeepers far less than the $3 minimum wage, since room and board were a contractual benefit of employment, but ultimately found they were not able to fire them after the novelty of live-in help wore off. Reportedly, several Filipina housemaids were murdered in Saipan in the early 1990’s. This was one way to terminate a contract, people said; and the consequences, due to the low regard in which the unlucky foreigners were held, were non-existent.
The Federal government addressed the problem by implementing a regulation preventing CNMI residents on welfare from employing live-in maids.
The Senate this week, it its typical mad rush to roll over and play dead for the appointed Boy King, agreed to include a guest worker provision in the new immigration bill, reducing by half the number requested by Bush to 200,000. It should reconsider. In view of the labor abuses perpetrated in DeLay’s perfect petri dish of capitalism and other ongoing abuses still occurring in the mainland United States, abuses affecting farm workers in Florida and elsewhere, women brought in from Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe and sold to the sex trade, and individual cases such as the alleged imprisonment and torture of two Indonesian women uncovered last week on Long Island, a guest worker program is a prescription for a new kind of slavery in the United States. By providing no road to citizenship or permanent residence, it callously denies hope to the workers themselves. By putting the fate of impoverished foreign workers in the hands of greedy private businesses and individuals, it virtually guarantees the abuse of guest workers. It flies in the face of everything this country purports to stand for. It should be forcefully and unequivocally rejected.