NEW YORK — More than four years have passed since the American public learned, through a group of class-action lawsuits, that garment workers on the island of Saipan, a U.S. territory, were being held in conditions that amounted to indentured servitude.

It was perhaps the most egregious in a chain of incidents in the late Nineties that called attention to the working conditions at contractors that supplied major U.S. apparel brands. On Thursday, a judge in Saipan approved a $20 million settlement deal, which will recompense the workers for back pay and includes a monitoring system intended to prevent the abuses from happening again.

While time has dulled the initial shock of the news, the stories of the mostly Chinese and Filipino workers at the factories in the Northern Mariana Islands, remain poignant. Those stories are told in "Behind the Labels," a film produced by Tia Lessin for the nonprofit organization, Witness. It will be screened at the Museum of Modern Art on Friday.

Lessin, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, spent a month in Saipan in 2001 interviewing women who had worked in the factories. Her 46-minute film, narrated by Susan Sarandon, tells their stories of working 14-hour days in a desperate effort to pay off the multi-thousand-dollar "recruitment fees" they had paid to secure their jobs, which paid less than the U.S. minimum wage. Saipan, located in the Pacific Ocean, is not subject to U.S. labor laws, making its minimum wage legal.

"Their stories were pretty harrowing," Lessin said in a Thursday interview. "I interviewed Chinese women who had escaped a Chinese-run factory [where they] were essentially being held captive."

The years of publicity surrounding working conditions at apparel factories have prompted most major U.S. apparel brands to adopt codes of conduct that, according to industry sources, have changed the attitudes of many managers of overseas plants, particularly since U.S. consumers have sometimes called for boycotts of brands that have been tied to sweatshop labor.

But the bigger question is whether conditions for workers have improved as a result of greater public awareness. That is hard to answer, Lessin, 38, acknowledged.

"I do think the American public and American consumers, when told, show a great deal of concern about the conditions in this industry," she said. "Does that translate into better conditions for the workers themselves? I don’t know."She said she hoped her film, which had been commissioned by the Oxygen cable network and was first released last year, would help to improve Americans’ awareness of the conditions in Saipan and how they affected workers.

"We tried to give the women themselves an opportunity to speak and be heard and tell a little about their lives," she said. "It’s so seldom that we hear these voices and see them as full people."



"Behind the Labels" will be shown at 3:15 p.m. on Friday at MoMA, 127 East 23 Street in Manhattan. Tickets are $12 and include admission to the entire three-film series, "Sundance at MoMA: Illuminated Voices," which begins showing at 2 p.m.

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