WASHINGTON — A federal court judge in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands has approved a $20 million settlement with 27 contractors located in Saipan and 27 U.S. apparel companies charged with buying from sweatshops.

The action nearly brings to a close a four-year legal battle involving three blockbuster class action lawsuits against such companies as Gap Inc., Target Corp., J.C. Penney Co. and Abercrombie & Fitch.

"Justice has finally and decisively been served for the workers, and the retailers and manufacturers now begin with a fresh slate," said Al Meyerhoff, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs and partner at Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach LLP.

Levi Strauss & Co. has refused to settle and is the lone holdout in the legal battle, according to lawyers representing the workers.

"We do not intend to settle," said a company spokesman. "The allegations against [Levi’s] are not true and we acted responsibly in Saipan."

He noted that Levi’s was not named in the original lawsuits filed in 1999, but added later in March 2000.

"We had already completed our withdrawal of our contracting sourcing operations in January 2000," the spokesman said, pointing to the company’s long history of supporting workers’ rights and improvement of labor conditions globally.

"This [lawsuit] revolves around the notion of our participation in a conspiracy to deny workers’ rights," he said. "Given our company’s commitment to promoting workers’ rights, that idea is absurd."

As previously reported, about 30,000 workers who toiled in the Saipan factories from 1989 through May 2002, in conditions that amounted to indentured servitude, are eligible for back pay under the terms of the agreement. The companies, which admitted no wrongdoing, have also agreed to adhere to a system of independent monitoring of their Saipan contractors.

A panel of three retired judges will be set up to oversee monitoring. The panel will have the power to conduct unannounced inspections of factories and investigate worker complaints.

As a condition of the settlement, the firms have agreed to comply with strict employment standards, including a guarantee of extra pay for overtime work, safe food and drinking water and other basic workers’ rights. Workers who want to return to their home countries also will be eligible for up to $3,000 in relocation fees.

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