WASHINGTON — A group of House Democrats reintroduced legislation Wednesday to reform labor and immigration laws in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory that in the Nineties came under scrutiny for rampant labor abuses and sweatshop conditions.
The lawmakers, led by Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), said they were seizing on the retirement Friday of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R., Tex.) and the impending imprisonment of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who they allege worked together to block legislation in Congress that would have raised the minimum wage and strengthened labor and immigration laws in the Northern Marianas.
“For more than 10 years, I’ve sought to change the laws that govern the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands,” Miller said. “I sought these changes in an effort to stop well-documented and widespread abuse of poor women in the garment and tourism industries and to better secure America’s borders.”
Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to several counts of fraud, conspiracy, bribing members of Congress, defrauding Indian tribes and tax evasion, represented the government of the Northern Marianas and the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association from 1994 to 2001, according to documents previously obtained by WWD. During that time, Abramoff lobbied lawmakers to block legislation aimed at extending the protection of U.S. labor and minimum wage laws to the workers on Saipan, the capital of the Northern Marianas, primarily poor women from China, the Philippines and Thailand who were brought to Saipan as guest workers to stitch garments for scores of U.S. retailers and manufacturers.
DeLay took a trip to the Northern Marianas and Saipan in the Nineties on an invite from Abramoff and came away stating that working conditions and the minimum wage level were adequate. He allegedly then blocked the House from considering legislation on increasing the minimum wage and strengthening labor and immigration laws there, according to Congressional sources.
The legislation would prohibit the shipment of garments with the “Made in the U.S.A.” label from the Northern Marianas unless the minimum wage was paid to the workers, all labor laws were obeyed and no indentured servitude was allowed. It would also raise the minimum wage from $3.05 to the $5.15 federal minimum wage rate by Jan. 1, 2009; revoke duty free and quota-free treatment for garments shipped to the U.S. unless all labor laws were applied; allow U.S. Customs officials to board ships docked in the territory to search for transshipped goods, and establish a job training program.
“We have worked tirelessly to try to get some legislation through to address the outrageous abuses, but always to no avail,” said Rep. John Spratt (D., S.C.), a co-signer on the bill and also co-chair of the House Textile Caucus. “The problem is difficult to correct at this point but this bill addresses some long-standing abuses that need to be corrected now.”