The US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held hearings yesterday on the labor, immigration, law enforcement, and economic conditions in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. A US territory in the Pacific Ocean, the Northern Mariana Islands are currently exempt from US labor and immigration laws, though minimum wage bills that were recently passed in both the House and the Senate would include the territory. Yesterday's hearings focused on whether the Northern Mariana Islands should be brought under the US' labor and immigration law enforcement jurisdiction.
Ms. magazine brought the plight of the Northern Mariana Islands' predominately female, low-wage work-force to the attention of readers across the nation in a special investigative report, "Paradise Lost." The Northern Mariana Islands' economy is heavily dependent on garment factories that employ mostly female migrants, who have worked up to 20 hours a day in sweatshop conditions. Despite the territory's relaxed labor laws and minimum wage that is far under the US minimum wage, the clothing produced in the Mariana Islands is still allowed to carry "Made in the Mariana Islands (USA)" or even "Made in the USA" labels.
At yesterday's hearings, Kayleen D. Entena, a 23-year-old woman who was trafficked into the Northern Mariana Islands and forced into prostitution, testified about the conditions that women face. "I want the [Northern Mariana Islands] Government and immigration officials to revise or make their requirements stricter," Entena said. "I am hoping that this kind of illegal system will stop, the way it happened to me, the way I was treated. I do not want this to happen to anyone. I know that there are other women out in the community like me… Please help change the way the government functions here." Sister Mary Stella Mangona, who works with female victims of human trafficking, testified that the "'system' as a whole" is of concern, not just the actions or oversight of any one department.
David B. Cohen, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Affairs, testified that the Northern Mariana Islands' two major industries, garment manufacturing and tourism, have significantly declined and that the US Federal Government must be careful not to exacerbate the Islands' "very fragile economic and fiscal condition." Cohen also said, "Before considering legislation that would drastically change the lives of the people of the [Northern Mariana Islands], we hope that Congress will consider granting them a seat at the table at which their fate will be decided." It should be noted that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff formerly worked on behalf of the Northern Mariana Islands' government and garment industry to ensure that Congress would not pass laws to upgrade wages and working conditions for immigrant laborers.