Friday, October 8, 1999

More companies join
in Saipan settlement

Bullet The issue: Five companies have joined in a settlement of a lawsuit aimed at ending slave-like working conditions at clothing sweatshops on Saipan.

Bullet Our view: Settlement by companies remaining in the suit and congressional action is needed to end the abuse of workers.

EXPANDED settlement of a lawsuit brought on behalf of workers in the Saipan garment industry against clothing manufacturers is an important step toward ending the sweatshop conditions. A trial will proceed here if other clothiers named in the class-action suit refuse to settle, but changes in federal law may be needed to put a permanent end to what has amounted to indentured servitude.

About 14,000 workers, mostly young women, are employed in sweatshops on the Northern Marianas island. Most of them have been recruited from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand with promises of good wages, then have been brought to Saipan for a fee of up to $10,000. They agree to pay off that fee with their wages.

Lawsuits filed on the mainland in January alleged that the U.S. companies were in violation of American labor laws and international human rights treaties. Employees working for about 32 contractors have been required to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, under intolerable conditions.

In August, Nordstrom Inc., J. Crew Group Inc., Cutter & Buck Inc. and Gymboree Corp. agreed to oversee their contractors on Saipan and establish a $1.25 million fund to finance independent monitoring, provide money to workers and create a public education program. Five other companies -- Ralph Lauren, Phillips-Van Heusen, Bryland L.P., Donna Karan International and The Dress Barn Inc. -- have joined in the settlement, bringing the total fund to $3 million.

Nine clothiers have refused to settle, and U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder of Los Angeles has ruled that the case be transferred to Honolulu. The companies remaining in the suit had wanted the trial to be on Saipan.

A commonwealth agreement between Washington and the Northern Marianas left control of immigration and minimum wages in local hands and exempted Saipan's exports from U.S. duties and quotas that limit exports. Legislation introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka would require that Saipan abide by U.S. immigration and minimum-wage laws and allow the "Made in the USA" label, now stamped on clothing made in Saipan, only if at least 50 percent of the work was performed by American citizens.

The decision by the latest companies to join in the settlement is encouraging. However, a trial, followed by enactment of Akaka's bill, may be necessary to bring the others in line.

Charging a John Doe

Bullet The issue: DNA is being used in a Wisconsin case to charge a rape suspect whose identity is otherwise unknown.

Bullet Our view: Increased efforts to obtain DNA samples from crime scenes and use of an FBI database could solve many crimes.

MATCHING genetic strains have been cited many times as evidence of a criminal suspect's identity, but can an unmatched DNA code be cited as the identity itself? That is what Wisconsin prosecutors maintain in bringing charges against an accused rapist known only by DNA evidence gathered from the crime scene. In this case, science has provided a method of meeting time limits for filing charges, even though the suspect has not been apprehended or identified by name.

Arrest warrants must identify the person to be arrested. In cases where the suspect is known only by an alias or physical description, "John Doe" often is used. But a warrant issued by the Milwaukee County district attorney authorizes the arrest of "John Doe, unknown male with matching deoxyribonucleic acid profile," charged with rape and kidnapping. By signing the warrant, a judge kept the six-year statute of limitations in this case from expiring. A monthly check of the FBI computer base of genetic samples could result eventually in the suspect's arrest.

However, prosecutors will need more than science on their side. Only 18 states are connected to the FBI's databank of DNA codes. Evidence from 180,000 rapes sits unexamined in the nation's police departments, according to a survey by the National Commission for the Future of DNA Evidence. That evidence includes traces of blood, semen, hair and fingernail scrapings from which DNA codes could be obtained.

"We have the technology to solve these crimes, and we're not doing it," says Christopher Asplen, the commission's executive director.

DNA is being used in a bold and scientifically justifiable way in Wisconsin to prevent a rapist from eluding charges. Increased funding to police departments specifically to process DNA codes from unsolved crime scenes and to connect with the FBI database could be worthwhile.

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John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

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