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Will U.S. Right Saipan Wrongs?
Congress voted to raise wages; now considers more protections for exploited garment workers

When Kayleen Entena was offered a chance in 2005 to leave the rural Philippines to work as a waitress on the Pacific island of Saipan, she jumped at it. She was told she would earn $400 a month, enough to support her family at home and return to college herself.

Instead, the day she arrived in Saipan, capital of the U.S. territory known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, she was forced to work in a brothel and raped by four men. Carefully watched by the brothel’s madam, she found it difficult to escape. Eventually, she and another young Filipina were befriended by young clients who took them to Karidat, a local shelter for battered women.

Entena, now 23, told her story to members of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during February hearings. The committee is considering legislation to bring the Marianas under U.S. labor and immigration protections. The islands’ exemption from some of those laws helped fuel an exploitative gar-ment industry staffed with low-paid foreign guestworkers—an industry represented in the past by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and supported by U.S. congressional allies such as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (see “Paradise Lost,” in Ms., Spring 2006).

For more than a decade, members of the House and Senate put forth legislation to improve labor conditions in the Marianas, but it was always blocked by the powerful Republican controlled House Resources Committee. Now, with Democrats in control of Congress, legislative remedies have a much better chance of moving forward. In the Senate hearings, even the Bush administration, which previously had turned a deaf ear to the plight of Marianas’ workers, expressed concern: The Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for insular affairs, David B. Cohen, testified that the department was troubled by “reports that increasing numbers of laid-off garment workers are turning to prostitution.” Furthermore, he said, “Having a large alien workforce with little economic power and relatively limited legal rights has created a great risk of exploitation and abuse in the CNMI.”

Already, the House and Senate have passed a new federal minimum-wage bill that includes, for the first time, workers in the Marianas. Previously, those workers received only the subminimum wage of $3.05 an hour, and were sometimes required to work substantial overtime without adequate compensation. Under the new legislation, which currently awaits conference committee approval and the president’s signature, the minimum wage will be $7.25. The Ms. investigative report on the Marianas received a great deal of publicity, helping spark the islands’ inclusion in the minimum-wage legislation.

At the Senate hearings, representatives from the Marianas argued against any further legal changes, pointing out that the garment indus-try is now in a steep decline. Nineteen of the 34 garment factories operating at the industry’s peak have closed, stung by the World Trade Organization’s decision to end Chinese export quotas (being a U.S. territory, the Marianas already had none). Now, it’s once again more profitable for many to manufacture garments in China and other low-paying Asian locales.

However, after a post-hearing visit to the Marianas by Senate aides and a representative of the Interior department, the Marianas’ government seems to have stopped resisting legislation being developed to include Mariana workers under U.S. labor and immigration protection. According to a congressional source, island leaders realize that both Democrats and Republicans are now determined to bring the Marianas under U.S. strictures.

Meanwhile, concerns still remain about women laid off from the garment factories or trapped in the sex trade. At least some have received protection: Kayleen Entena has now obtained a visa which will allow her to live in the U.S. and apply in three years for permanent residency. “I want to find a job and to save money for my family,” she told Ms. She also plans to return to school and eventually become an English teacher.

“I’m not,” she says, “afraid any more.”

For background, see Sex, Greed, and Forced Abortions in Paradise