Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Government officials from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands told a House panel last week that this U.S. territory was solving its problems — including those in its controversial garment industry, which is expected to diminish when global quotas on textiles and apparel are dropped in 2005.
However, Clinton administration officials testified to ongoing sweatshop violations in garment factories on the Marianas’ main island of Saipan, long an object of criticism. The U.S. officials said abuses could be rectified only by bringing the Marianas under U.S. immigration laws, a reform included in a Republican-sponsored Senate bill that is opposed by leadership in the House.
The hearing before the Committee on Resources was the latest round in a battle over the Marianas’ liberal immigration policy, which has allowed garment production to boom in just a few years.
The territory’s economy relies on guest workers from nearby countries to staff its two main industries: tourism and garment production. More than half of the Marianas’ 70,000 residents are foreign workers. Garment factories employ as many as 15,000 foreign workers, who produced about $1 billion in apparel shipped last year to the U.S.
The Marianas has made some reforms, according to the local officials; it has put a three-year limit on visas and adopted a stricter background and health check for visas. A cap on new garment worker visas of 50,757 is also in place, and the industry has hired a monitoring agency to keep tabs on workplace conditions.
Marianas officials said the territory’s government relies on foreign workers to staff the tax-generating garment and tourism industries. Garment factories alone contribute about 40 percent of the Marianas government’s $210 million annual budget.
Eventually, the Marianas officials said, they hoped to replace the territory’s garment industry with a more diversified industrial base that would employ more residents and fewer foreign workers.
The territory officials argued that restricting immigration to attack problems like sweatshops would hinder this transition. They said the garment industry probably would move to a lower-cost country when global textile and apparel quotas are eliminated in 2005. However, the Marianas would retain its tariff-free status as a U.S. territory and garments made there would be allowed to carry the “Made in the U.S.A.” label.
“These [sweatshop and other poor social] conditions are symptoms,” said Juan N. Babauta, resident representative for the Marianas, who represents the territory’s interests in Washington. “They need to be dealt with.”
However, he said, the guest worker program was not the problem; a lack of resources and a past lack of organization, along with a weak economy, had led to these conditions, he maintained.
Administration officials consider the foreign workers to be virtually powerless to complain about workplace inequities or violations. Their sheer numbers also tax local services, contributing to social ills, the U.S. officials said.
“The system produces casualties and the best we can do is treat the wounded,” testified John Fraser, deputy administrator at Labor’s wage and hour division. Fraser said so far this year the agency had cited the Marianas garment factories for underpaying 2,600 workers $8 million.
Right now, Marianas’ reform measures appear to be getting a lot of attention on Capitol Hill. But no legislation is expected this year, given the shortened Congressional calendar to allow for electioneering, and opposition in the House.
However, ad bill unrelated to the one in the Senate, and expected to move in this Congress, could affect the economics of garment making in the Marianas — a Democrat-sponsored $1 increase in the minimum wage. This bill would extend the Federal minimum wage to the islands for the first time, lifting the minimum to $6.15 from the islands’ current $3.05.