|On the radar: Senate Hearing Airs Abuses of Women Laborers in Marianas
For background on the situation for women in the Marianas, see Ms. magazine's investigative report and updates.
WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 – Possible legislation to bring the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) under U.S. labor and immigration law enforcement jurisdiction could curb human trafficking and stop widespread labor abuses, according to testimony today before the Senate Energy and Resources Committee.
But island business and government officials warned that such legislation, if not carefully drafted, could curb an already dwindling tourism industry and hasten the closure of garment factories that are already struggling, worsening the current economic crisis.
The Senate approved reforms in 2000 to put the 15 Pacific islands under U.S. minimum wage, labor and immigration laws, but House action was blocked by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former House Majority Leader Tom Delay at the behest of Marianas officials and business leaders. A December Government Accountability Office report found “serious economic, fiscal and accountability challenges” in the Marianas, including failure to pass government audits for seven years.
David B. Cohen, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant undersecretary for insular affairs, who oversees the U.S. relationship with the Marianas, testified that “increasing numbers of laid-off garment workers are turning to prostitution,” but added that garment factory closings were depriving the local government of income to prevent and prosecute abuses. He called Marianas society “fragile and potentially volatile” and “fraught with peril,” and urged “flexibility and creativity” in drafting any new law.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose father Frank cosponsored the original reform legislation when he was in the Senate, was the only Republican Senator to attend the hearing. She noted “some progress” since the 1990s, when illegal immigrant women felt coerced into prostitution or into having abortions in order to keep their jobs. “The question is whether the changes have gone far enough” to make the law unnecessary now, she said.
Lauri Bennett Ogumoro, a social worker who manages a shelter for battered women, testified that her organization had cared for at least 30 trafficking victims in 2006, and that as many as 5,000 undocumented workers now struggle to survive in the Marianas, which has a population of about 70,000. “Human lives are being destroyed,” she said. “All of us are being hurt by this.”
Timothy P. Villagomez, Marianas lieutenant governor, asked the senators to provide additional funding for better law enforcement. But committee member Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said the GAO finding that the Marianas have “trouble with basic bookkeeping” was “incredible” and “absolutely amazing,” and indicated he would not support any additional funding for the islands without improvements in the island’s performance.
Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.Mex.) said committee members would visit the Marianas later this month and then consider possible legislation or further study of the situation.