Saipan Sweatshops Win Reform
Tom DeLay has long been a staunch defender of working conditions in sweatshops on Saipan and a foe of any kind of reform or regulation. Upon his return from a trip to the islands, a reporter asked DeLay about alleged sweatshop conditions there. "I saw some of those factories," DeLay responded. "They were air conditioned. I didn't see anyone sweating."
But a federal court has found fault with DeLay's powers of observation. The court has just approved a preliminary settlement with 19 leading retailer in a landmark Saipan (in the Marianas Islands) sweatshop case. The court decision affects all factories in U.S. territory. The agreement embraces major reforms, including independent monitoring.
"The court has paved the way for sweeping reform of America's worst sweatshop," said Al Meyerhoff, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs and partner at Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach LLP.
In the closely watched human rights case, a U.S. District Judge in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands issued an order certifying a class of more than 30,000 sweatshop workers and granting preliminary approval of a landmark settlement that will transform working conditions on the island of Saipan.
The dozens of factory owners and retailers that had refused to settle include the Gap, Levi Strauss, JC Penney and Target, and they tried to block the settlements of the 19 other retailers. The court rejected those efforts, which had delayed the pending settlements -- reached in 1999 and 2000 -- from going into effect earlier.
The settlement will fund an independent monitoring program and require the 19 settling retailers to purchase garments only from factories that adhere to strict labor standards in a comprehensive model Code of Conduct. Factories would be required to guarantee overtime pay for overtime work, provide safe food and drinking water and respect employees' basic human rights. The settlement will have a significant impact on the island's billion-dollar garment industry because the factories will likely have to improve their labor conditions to remain competitive.
In certifying the class, U.S. District Judge Alex R. Munson concluded that "[T]he plaintiff Does' alleged injuries, although different, all stem from the same alleged conspiracy amongst the defendants to dominate and control the garment work force of Saipan."
The class certification enables the litigation to move forward against all factories and retailers that have not settled. The "class" in sweatshop cases typically includes workers at just one or two factories that produce clothes for a single retailer. Certifying a sweatshop class of workers at 28 factories over a 13-year period who sew clothes for dozens of retailers -- comprising the entire Saipan garment industry -- is unprecedented in scope.
According to the complaint, foreign garment workers in Saipan are often forced to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, in unsafe, unclean conditions that violate U.S. labor laws, while sewing clothes for America's leading clothing retailers.
"This will dramatically improve the lives of thousands of workers who now toil day and night under deplorable conditions," said Michael Rubin, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs and partner at Altshuler Berzon Nussbaum Rubin & Demain. "These settlements will force the factories to provide the wages and working conditions the workers were promised upon coming to the U.S., instead of the unlawful and unsafe workplaces they have been forced to endure."
Within five days, the 19 settling defendants will deposit $8.75 million into an interest-bearing escrow account to fund the settlement. Within 20 days, plaintiffs will issue notices to more than 30,000 current and former workers notifying them of the settlement. The court also ordered the factories to post the notices and distribute them to employees when they are given their paychecks. Members of the class will be a part of the settlement unless they choose to opt out. Soon after the workers are notified, the court will hold a "fairness hearing" during which class members and settling parties can be heard before final court approval of the settlements.
"The workers on Saipan have been waiting for more than two years for the reforms agreed to by 19 retailers to go into effect. Now that the judge has ruled that the non-settling factories and retailers have no right to block these reforms, it's time that they clean up their act too," said Medea Benjamin, founding director of Global Exchange, an international human rights group.