Tuesday, May 29, 2001
GOVERNMENT sanctions taken against the owner of a garment sweatshop in American Samoa for human-rights abuses against its 250 workers should be heeded by other manufacturers lured by cheap labor in remote locations.
serve as a warning
The issue: The Labor Department has
announced a new round of penalties
against a South Korean company
that operated a garment sweatshop
in American Samoa.
Further measures may be needed to prevent such abuses from recurring on American soil.
The U.S. Labor Department was prompt in responding to reports of abuses at the Daewoosa Samoa Ltd. factory, a South Korean-owned manufacturer that supplied sportswear to J.C. Penney Co. and other retailers. Government investigators allegedly found that workers, mainly women from Vietnam, were underpaid or denied pay, threatened, in some cases beaten, given little food to the point that some became "walking skeletons" and kept in crowded, rat-infested quarters.
"The conditions under which these workers work were beyond comprehension," said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. "The owner of this factory must be held accountable for his inhumane acts and pay the consequences of his actions."
Following an investigation two years ago, the U.S. Labor Department recovered $151,500 in back wages for 71 employees and collected fines of $24,149, but Daewoosa persisted in violating U.S. labor law. Last June, the Labor Department arranged payment of $367,000 in back wages to 213 employees and $213,000 in civil penalties to be paid to the employees. A judge in American Samoa placed the factory in receivership in January after Daewoosa had failed to pay $600,000 in back wages and penalties.
Daewoosa owner Kil-Soo Lee of South Korea was arrested by the FBI in March and charged with involuntary servitude and forced labor. He awaits trial in federal court in Honolulu. Lee's attorney, Federal Public Defender Alexander Silvert, has maintained that a report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration absolves his client of the charges.
Silvert was quoted a month ago in the Samoa Post as asserting further that Lee "is being used by the prosecution to strike a blow against American Samoa, both as to its people and its culture and as to its government. It's clear to me that this is a political prosecution to some extent."
That is a peculiar allegation, since neither Lee nor the workers are Samoan. David Boback, director of the federal Wage and Hour office in Honolulu, said last year that the offices of the American Samoa governor and attorney general had been instrumental at that point in recovering back wages for Daewoosa employees.
Conditions at the Daewoosa factory were uncovered following the discovery of similar abuses by 32 contractors at sweatshops in the Northern Marianas. Further efforts to prevent such abuses would be aided by a requirement, proposed by Senator Akaka, that "Made in the USA" labels be allowed only on garments on which more than half the work had been done by American citizens.
A Circuit Court jury's award of more than $4 million to two women in a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the state Department of Public Safety should send a message throughout state government that such behavior will result in recriminations and is intolerable.
State damaged by
sexual discrimination lawsuit
The issue: A jury awarded two women
more than $4 million in a suit against
the Department of Public Safety.
The jury found that Public Safety supervisors, including former department Director George Iranon, discriminated against Sydney Zalopany, a supervisor of Internal Affairs, and Wendy Elkins, a narcotics enforcement investigator, because they are women. It rejected claims by a third plaintiff and were deadlocked on claims of a fourth.
According to the 1997 suit, Elkins and Zalopany were passed over for promotions, denied training or overtime pay given to men and subject to remarks about physical appearance and sexual conduct. When they reported the improper behavior, their supervisors retaliated against them.
In a time when women are an established presence in the workplace, it is shameful that this kind of conduct continues. That it persists in the halls of state government is even more appalling. Government should be in the lead in demanding that its managers treat employees, both men and women, with fairness and respect.
Conflicts in the workplace undeniably occur, especially in high-stress, male-dominated sectors like the Public Safety Department, which oversees prisons and other corrections functions. However, as women take positions in these areas, it becomes all the more important that the people in charge keep conflicts from degenerating. Discrimination in all its variations cannot be condoned.
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