Tuesday, January 19, 1999

Congressmen see
need for serious reform
in Mariana islands

By Pete Pichaske
Phillips News Service


WASHINGTON -- Longtime congressional critics of working conditions in the Northern Mariana Islands applauded the $1 billion lawsuits filed on behalf of workers there last week but said the legal action would not slow their push for a congressional crackdown.

In fact, they said, the added publicity and pressure might speed it up.

"I am not surprised that workers have used a class action lawsuit to fight intolerable working conditions," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat and a leader of Senate efforts to reform the islands.

He added: "Even if the . .. workers prevail in court, changes in federal law will still be needed as a permanent fix for the grave problems."

Asked if the suit could help Akaka's efforts, spokesman Paul Cardus noted that the lawsuits got prominent play on national TV news broadcasts. "Hopefully with more attention there will be more recognition of the need for change," said Cardus.

Similar sentiments were voiced in the House.

The lawsuits "should help alert American consumers to the fact that many of the goods they buy that are made in the Northern Mariana Islands are in fact made by severely exploited workers," said Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California and the leading House critic of the Marianas. The legal action, he said, has been "a long time coming."

Miller plans to re-introduce his reform legislation, which has been blocked in the past by Republican House leaders reluctant to slow the Marianas' hard-charging economy, soon after the House reconvenes this week.

Akaka aides, meanwhile, said Hawaii's junior senator would reintroduce his reform proposal soon as well. A hearing before the Senate Energy Committee is tentatively set for April.

Both versions of the bill are similar: They would apply U.S. immigration and minimum-wage laws to the Marianas, a U.S. territory located near Guam, and allow goods manufactured there to use the "Made in the USA" label only if 50 percent of the work was done by American citizens.

Akaka's bill was passed by the energy committee last year following a much-publicized hearing where workers testified about horrific conditions.

Miller's bill, despite years of being introduced, has never even been scheduled for a hearing by GOP leaders in the House, much less a vote.

It has, however, won the support of both Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Rep. Patsy Mink, who were among the 86 co-sponsors last year.

Mink, in fact, went so far as to introduce a proposal of her own: a call for a plebiscite on Marianas' to see if the voters wanted to be Americans. The bill was aimed at forcing the hand of island leaders, who have refused to adapt American immigration and labor laws and complained about being pressured to do so.

The lawsuits were filed Wednesday in the Marianas, Los Angeles and San Francisco by apparel workers in Saipan and human rights organizations.

The lawsuits assert that 18 well-known American retailers and clothing companies, including Wal-Mart, Sears and The Gap, conspired with factory owners in the Marianas to deprive workers of their rights by forcing them to work in sweatshop conditions.

Among the law firms involved in the legal action is Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach of Los Angeles, which negotiated the recent $1.2 billion settlement with banks in Switzerland to reimburse Holocaust victims.

Miller noted the high-powered legal talent involved and said the lawsuits have "the potential to change the way things are done because they will hold manufacturers liable for their actions."

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