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Destroying Paradise for Profit

What role did Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff play in allowing American companies to profit by exploiting tens of thousands of female workers in the Northern Marianas Islands?
 
 
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(Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from the spring 2006 issue of Ms. Magazine , available on newsstands now.)

Were abusive garment sweatshops, forced abortions and sex trafficking in Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands, protected by Tom DeLay? How did congressional leaders and the Bush administration succeed in blocking labor and immigration reforms there? And how did Jack Abramoff figure into all of this?

Those are some of the questions we answered after sending an investigative team to Saipan, the main island in the Northern Marianas chain. There, 30,000 "guest workers" -- predominately women -- from China, the Philippines and Thailand sew clothing for top-name American brands, which are then allowed to label them "Made in USA" because the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is a U.S. territory. But workers in these factories are not covered by U.S. minimum-wage and immigration laws.

Coming from rural villages and the big-city slums of poor Asian countries, these garment workers arrive in Saipan with a huge financial debt, having borrowed money (at interest rates as high as 20 percent) to pay recruiters as much as $7,000 for a one-year contract job. In a situation akin to indentured servitude, workers cannot earn back their recruitment fee and pay for housing and food without working tremendous hours of overtime.

At its peak, the factories in the Northern Marianas exported garments worth $2 billion retail annually to the United States. Considering that the success of the industry was tied closely to its low wages and exploitative guest worker program -- and the fact that it was exempt from tariffs or quotas on exports to the U.S. mainland -- it's not surprising that both the Marianas' government and the garment manufacturers have fought long and hard to maintain the deal.

Enter Jack Abramoff, the formerly high-flying Republican lobbyist. First at the Washington, D.C., law offices of Preston, Gates, Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds -- and later at Greenberg Traurig -- Abramoff and his team brought in nearly $11 million in fees from the Northern Marianas government and Saipan garment manufacturers to block congressional efforts to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the islands' exemptions from U.S. immigration laws. His efforts focused on the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. territories. And he also cultivated powerful allies in the House leadership -- notably Tom DeLay, who, as Majority Whip at the time, could keep a bill off the House floor even if the Resources Committee voted in its favor.

One of Abramoff's favorite tactics for influencing Congress was to arrange Saipan junkets for members of Congress and their staffers. As many as 100 people connected to the U.S. Congress -- members themselves, or their staffers -- traveled to the islands. Among the islands' visitors were DeLay, his wife and daughter, and six of his aides. At a New Year's Eve dinner on Saipan in 1998, he lavishly praised the CNMI governor -- a moment caught on camera by ABC's "20/20:" "You are a shining light for what is happening in the Republican Party, and you represent everything that is good about what we're trying to do in America in leading the world in the free-market system."

But the dark underbelly of DeLay's "shining light" is right across a busy Saipan street and a few yards down a dirt road. That's where garment workers live in tiny, corrugated-tin-roofed homes, with three women sharing a queen-size bed. Their "kitchen" is a few hot plates and water-filled plastic buckets set outside on a concrete counter. Nine people share one toilet.

If they get pregnant while working in Saipan, workers face another nightmare. According to a 1998 investigation by the Department of Interior Office of Insular Affairs, a number of Chinese garment workers reported that if they became pregnant, they were "forced to return to China to have an abortion, or forced to have an illegal abortion" in the Marianas. These days, many pregnant workers still feel they have little choice but to visit one of Saipan's underground abortion clinics -- or else lose their jobs.

Meanwhile, the garment industry on Saipan has begun to decline with the expiration of worldwide quotas on apparel exports to the United States. Garment makers are moving off Saipan to even lower-wage countries such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Desperate to earn money and pay back their recruitment fees, some unemployed garment workers have found themselves turning to another lucrative industry on Saipan: sex tourism. There are no reliable statistics, but an estimated 90 percent of the island's prostitutes are former garment workers.

Tom DeLay insists that he's never heard such stories. "Sure, when you get this number of people, there are stories of sexual exploitation," he told the Galveston County Daily News in May 2005. "But in interviewing these employees one-on-one, there was no evidence of any of that going on. No evidence of sweatshops as portrayed by the national media. It's a beautiful island with beautiful people who are happy about what's happening."

When we contacted DeLay during our investigation, his spokesman Michael Connolly said, "He stands by the things he has said in the past, and he stands by the votes he's made that pertain to the islands."

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who has championed efforts to raise the minimum wage in Saipan, hopes that Abramoff's recent indictment offers a chance for real change in the Marianas. He has requested that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the House Resources Committee chair, Richard Pombo, R-Calif., launch a full investigation of Abramoff's dealings in the Marianas.

"It's so ironic that people who talk about themselves as having family values are allowing these guest workers to be exploited in the harshest possible ways," says Miller. "Their money and lobbying allowed the continuation of the worst of human behavior."

Rebecca Clarren is an investigative journalist based in Portland, Ore.