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Proposed Labor Bill to Confront Human Rights Violations in Mariana Islands

In a press conference yesterday, several members of Congress announced the introduction of labor law legislation to address women's rights and human rights abuses taking place on the US territory of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Introduced by Representatives George Miller (D-CA), Hilda Solis (D-CA), and John Spratt (D-SC), the bill would require the Marianas to gradually increase its minimum wage (currently $3.15) until it reaches the federal minimum wage of the US and to follow the US Immigration and Nationality Act as if it were a state. The bill also prohibits the use of the “Made in the USA” label on any products leaving the Marianas unless “the minimum wage was paid to the workers, all labor laws were obeyed, and no indentured servitude was allowed.”

The Marianas are subject to US laws, but are exempt from US minimum wage requirements and most provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Currently, some 30,000 temporary “guestworkers” — predominately women — from China, the Philippines, and Thailand sew clothing for top-name American brands, which are then allowed to label the clothes Made in Saipan (USA), Made in Northern Mariana Islands (USA) or Made in the USA. Reduced to little more than indentured servants due to the high recruitment fees and the low minimum wage, many of these women have been subjected to long working hours (some up to 20 hours a day or even off the clock), and poor living conditions, according to an investigative report in Ms. magazine.

Since 1995 at least 29 different bills regarding labor and immigration issues in the Northern Mariana Islands have been introduced. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff worked on behalf of the Marianas government and its garment industry to ensure that Congress would not pass laws to improve wages and working conditions for the Marianas workers. Tom DeLay, one of Abramoff’s staunch Congressional allies, helped in keeping any bills regarding the Marianas from reaching the House floor, according to Rep. Miller, and even called the Marianas “a Petri dish of ‘capitalism’.”

Rep. Miller, who has been championing the cause of the Marianas workers for years, said that Abramoff’s upcoming imprisonment and DeLay’s resignation this week provide “a window of opportunity” to properly address the women’s rights and human rights abuses taking place in the Northern Mariana Islands. “Let’s give TomDeLay a real going away present – fair wages and justice for the workers of the Marianas Islands,” said Congresswoman Solis.

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Media Resources: Statement of Rep. George Miller 6/7/06; Statement of Rep. Hilda Solis 6/7/06; Feminist Majority; Ms. Magazine Spring 2006; Feminist Daily News Wire 5/8/06; Feminist Daily News Wire 3/30/98

© Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms. magazine

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