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Slave labor: made in the U.S.A.: under the influence of disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay became an apologist for slave labor camps--on American soil.

Deep in a humid tropical island jungle, in poorly ventilated buildings ringed with barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards, impoverished Asian women--most of them Chinese--toil for 80 hours a week making brand-name apparel for export to the United States.

The female garment workers were lured to the labor camps, which are run by members of the Chinese Communist Party, with promises of wages extravagant by their standards, up to 60 percent of what their counterparts in the U.S. earn. But before they were hired, the women had to sign "shadow contracts" that effectively made them slaves to the company. Their activities are strictly regimented, and since they depend on the company store for most of their necessities, what they earn is recycled back into company hands. Furthermore, most of the workers had to borrow huge sums of money, at extortionate rates of interest, to pay, up front, the human traffickers responsible for transporting them to the island.

As is the case wherever the Chinese Communist Party claims jurisdiction, the female garment workers are subject to the regime's repulsive one-child policy. They are forbidden to marry or have boyfriends. Those who become pregnant are forced to have their children aborted.

Despite being produced from Chinese fabric by Chinese laborers who labor under Chinese law, the designer clothing that emerges from those island factories is labeled "Made in the USA." This is actually a case of truth in labeling, since these Chinese labor camps were established on Saipan, a territorial possession of the United States. Thanks to the efforts of super-lobbyist and confessed felon Jack Abramoff, this squalid arrangement has enjoyed political protection from, and been effusively praised by, many "conservative" Republican politicians, including disgraced former House GOP leader Tom DeLay.

GOP Chinagate

The Northern Mariana Islands, a Pacific archipelago located about three-quarters of the way from Hawaii to the Philippines, were acquired by the United States from Japan following World War II. Saipan, the largest of the 14 Marianas, serves as capital of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and the center of its $1 billion garment industry.

During the mid-1990s, Saipan was also a very popular tourist destination for junketeering congressmen, as well as for journalists, analysts for Washington-based think tanks, and other key opinion molders. Many of them were brought to Saipan by Jack Abramoff, who until recently was the King of K Street--the boulevard that serves as a staging base for the estimated 50,000 lobbyists infesting our nation's Capitol.

Since Saipan is a tropical white-sand paradise, Abramoff, representing the CNMI, encountered little difficulty persuading influential people to take all-expenses-paid trips to the tropical island. Once there, they were lobbied by the CNMI government and its allies in the garment industry to preserve its unique status under U.S. law. Among the privileges reserved to the commonwealth were the right to set its own immigration policy, exemption from labor and workplace safety regulations, exemptions from tariffs and quotas, and the right to label as "Made in the USA" goods that are manufactured by Chinese workers in factories that are, in effect, pockets of Chinese sovereignty.

"There is no doubt that trips to the CNMI are one of the most effective ways to build permanent friends on the Hill and among policy makers in Washington," boasted Abramoff in a 1998 memo to his associates. Perhaps the most significant of the "friends" cultivated by Abramoff on behalf of CNMI was former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). In the company of Abramoff, DeLay spent his 1998 New Year's vacation on Saipan as a personal guest of Chinese business mogul Tan Siu-lin.

During a lavish New Year's Eve dinner held in his honor at the beach front Hyatt Regency Hotel, DeLay praised Saipan as "my Galapagos Island ... a perfect petri dish of capitalism." He singled out Froilan Tenorio, at the time the CNMI's governor, praising him for being "a shining light for what is happening in the Republican Party, and [for representing] everything that is good about what we're trying to do in America, in leading the world in the free market system."

While DeLay never distinguished himself as an economist or scholar, it's likely that he understood that selectively exempting politically protected manufacturers from regulations and taxes is corporatism, not free-market capitalism. It's likewise a safe bet that he understood that a free market is not built on slave labor. And as one of the most conspicuous leaders of the Christian Right, DeLay certainly understood that abortion--particularly forced abortion--is an abomination. Yet all of these repellent practices thrived in the Saipan "petri dish" that so enchanted DeLay.

Had DeLay and the scores of other congressmen who visited Saipan on junkets been truly interested in deregulation, they would have directed their efforts at freeing up the entire U.S. manufacturing sector, rather than conferring such favors on Saipan alone. The sordid truth revealed in this episode is that the power brokers have corrupted our political system to such an extent that it now operates in many ways like a classic protection racket. By giving the political class a share of the boodle, the CNMI and its corporate allies were able to profit handsomely--as was the key influence broker, Jack Abramoff.

China, USA

Tan Siu-lin, the Hong Kong-born business mogul who was among Jack Abramoff's major clients, is the island's largest employer. His holdings include an airline, an ocean freight line, a fishing fleet, a newspaper, and numerous other enterprises. At his conglomerate's foundation, however, is garment production, Saipan's chief industry; and the Tans' Luenthai company is the CNMI's largest garment manufacturer.

Luenthai, a major supplier of Polo, Ralph Lauren, Liz Claiborne, and other prominent clothing brands, is a communist-owned operation. Tan Siu-lin, founder and chairman of the company, holds official posts at two universities on mainland China. His son Henry, the company's CEO, is a committee member of the Chinese Political Consultative Conference in China's Fujian Province; his other son Willie, the Chief Operations Officer, holds the same Communist Party post in China's Guangdong Province. The Tan empire, observed the August 13-14 issue of Hong Kong's Weekend Standard, "has been maintained through an intricate web of money-fueled connections to powerful figures in the United States."

"Goods manufactured on Saipan and fellow-members of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), as U.S. Territories, can be sent to the mainland free of tariffs and quotas," continued the report. "At the same time, the commonwealth has autonomy over its immigration, customs, taxes, and minimum wage levels." What this means is that Saipan-based manufacturers can adopt wage and workplace policies akin to those of China and other Asian exporters (such as Korea and Japan), thus driving down costs while retaining the right to label their products as "Made in the U.S.A."

Tan's manufacturing interests are involved in what could reasonably be described as human trafficking, by importing "thousands of young women from China and other Asian countries to work in their factories and hotels at starting wages 40 percent below the U.S. Federal level," explains Hong Kong's Weekend Standard. "The Chinese women sew Chinese-made cloth into 'Made in USA' clothes for Polo, Ralph Lauren, Liz Claiborne and other top brands. [Luenthai] produced 26.7 million knit shirts and other items of clothing on Saipan last year. It's a cozy, profitable arrangement which the Tans have been keen to protect from meddlesome mainland US officials and legislators."

In 1975, the residents of the Marianas approved, by an overwhelming margin, a proposal to be brought into the United States as a commonwealth. "In an effort to jump-start [the local] economy, federal negotiators granted control of immigration, wage, and workplace standards to the commonwealth government," recall Lou Dubose and Jan Reid in The Hammer, a critical biography of DeLay. "That's when the islands grabbed the attention of rich people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea"--including Tan. The moguls immediately recognized the unique advantages posed by Saipan: "For the venture capitalists on Saipan, the commonwealth status enabled them to circumvent quotas on Chinese textile exports to the United States. The investment capital behind the factories was largely Chinese. The plants were run like factories in China. Even the fabric was Chinese."

Rather than developing a local labor force, the Asian corporate leaders "contracted with recruitment squads that roved the provinces of China, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries," continue Dubose and Reid. Many impoverished young women were urged by their families to take the jobs on Saipan, despite the fact that they would be required to pay a $5-7,000 fee to sign a one-year labor contract. Not surprisingly, many of them fell prey to loan sharks who had a collaborative relationship with the recruitment agencies; the workers would be lent the money--at extortionate interest rates--and be required to work essentially for free until they had paid off the "recruitment fees."

Once on Saipan, the workers "were hustled through immigration and aboard buses, their faces staring out in bewilderment and apprehension as the drivers sped through the winding back streets of the capital city," continue the authors. "White beaches, emerald water, and resort hotels frequented by Korean and Japanese tourists were not the Saipan they saw. Their new homes were security-fenced compounds set far back in the jungle. With maybe a sheet thrown over a cord for privacy, the women slept on cots, as many as ten jammed in one small room. They had a dripping shower head with no privacy or hot water, and a single toilet they lined up to share. Rats and cockroaches roamed freely. On the one day each week they were allowed to leave the compound, they were let out through a gate in a security fence by an armed guard. They had an early curfew, and knew better than to miss it."

Chinese Version of Capitalism

Saipan's garment workers were imprisoned in a version of Communist China's notorious Laogai system. Inside each of the CNMI labor camps, states human rights activist Eric Gregoire, "Chinese law applies, and Chinese law is supreme.... The [U.S.] flag doesn't fly inside there."

The "shadow contracts" signed by Chinese workers prior to their arrival on Saipan "severely and, in some ways, illegally [restrict] their activities while on American soil," reported ABC's Brian Ross in a 1998 20/20 expose. The typical agreement prohibited workers "to participate in any religious or political activity or to ask for a salary increase or even to fall in love or get married, much as might be the case in mainland China." Allan Stayman, who worked in the Interior Department in the Clinton administration (which, it should be remembered, was not expansively critical of communist China), told Ross: "We've now documented the facts that management coerces female workers who become pregnant into having abortions."

That allegation was buttressed by the on-camera testimony of Tu Xiao Mei, who had worked at a Saipan factory that produced T-shirts for Ralph Lauren. "When I told them I was pregnant, they told me to have an abortion," she told 20/20. After refusing to kill her child, Mei was forbidden to reenter the factory. Asked if she would get her job back after having her child, Mei replied: "Cannot." As Eric Gregoire points out, Mei's story is typical: "With 11,000 Chinese workers here, I have never seen a Chinese garment factory worker have a baby in my entire four years on Saipan."

If the young women did get pregnant, commented Brian Ross in a January 4 radio interview, "they knew where to go, and there were a few essentially back-alley abortion mills on the island. And that's where these young Chinese women went in order to keep their jobs. And that was the ideal. That's part of the situation that was essentially endorsed by DeLay when he fought [against proposed changes in the CNMI's status]."

While Ross was reluctant to refer to the factories as "labor camps," he couldn't find a more suitable way to describe them. They are "owned primarily by Chinese industrialists from Hong Kong who brought in Chinese material. And the Chinese workers who lived [there were] ... surrounded by barbed wire. They were taken in the backs of trucks to these factories. They work 10, 12 hours a day, then [are] brought back to their camps. An ugly scene there, one that was defended effectively by the garment manufacturers and by the government of Saipan at the time, with the expenditure of millions of dollars on Jack Abramoff."

Among the traits that made Abramoff such a singularly effective lobbyist is his apparent immunity to decent shame. In assailing efforts by left-leaning congressmen to impose labor, wage, and environmental regulations on the CNMI, Abramoff protested: "These are immoral laws designed to destroy the economic lives of a people.... What these guys in the CNMI are trying to do is build a life without being wards of the state." He even compared proposed regulatory impositions on the Marianas to the Nuremberg laws imposed on German Jews by the National Socialist regime.


Between 1995 and 2002, the CNMI government and Saipan business associations have poured $11.5 million into lobbying efforts to preserve the island commonwealth's unique dual status. That lobbying effort, which has done much to undermine mainland American manufacturing, was "directed by conservative Republican Jack Abramoff," notes Hong Kong's Weekend Standard. And Abramoff's prize catch was Tom DeLay.

In 1999, Willie Tan, who operates his family's garment manufacturing plants, played host to an individual identifying himself as an investor interested in opening a garment plant on the island. In fact, Tan's guest was a human rights investigator who secretly tape-recorded his conversation. The investigator asked Tan about the possibility that Congress would apply mainland workplace rules to the Marianas.

"I have a good friend [in] Tom DeLay, the Majority Whip," Tan smugly replied. "And Tom tell me, as long as we [the Republicans] are in power, they [the Democrats in Congress] can't even see the light at the end of the tunnel. So, now it going to be two years, because Tom become real powerful this Congress so guarantee next two years no problem. Tom said if they elect me as Majority Whip, I make the schedule of Congress. And I'm not going to put it on the schedule. So, Tom told me, forget it, not a chance."

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one of the House's most liberal members, conducted his own fact-finding mission to Saipan in 1999. With the Senate holding hearings into the allegations of slave labor and forced abortion, Miller pressed Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the Government Resources Committee, to hold similar hearings. "We were told in no uncertain terms that there were not going to be any hearings on Saipan," Miller recalls. "I told the chairman, 'Why not? They're having hearings in the Senate.' He said, 'Well, we're not going to have them in the House. This is above my pay grade. The whip has said he's not going to let that happen.'"

In the same year, a group of 32 Saipan-based manufacturers settled a lawsuit filed by a group of human rights activists in U.S. District Court. But DeLay, not content merely to defend this model of slave-labor corporatist "capitalism," actually suggested it would make a good model for the U.S. mainland. "Returning from a fact-finding trip, where he played two rounds of golf at the first-class Loa Loa Bay Golf Resort, DeLay blasted critics of what he called Saipan's 'free market success,'" reported the Dallas Observer. "He went on to explain how he wants to use a set of Chinese-owned sweatshops on the far-off U.S. Territory--factories manned by low-paid Chinese and Sri Lankan indentured servants living in squalor--as a model for Mexican labor camps here on the mainland."

Superficial Reforms

The adverse publicity generated by the 20/20 story (as well as follow-ups by CNN and the BBC), coupled with the election of Pedro Tenorio as governor of the CNMI, brought about some superficial reforms of Saipan's slave labor system. But as Rep. Miller points out, the system incubated in the DeLay-Abramoff "petri dish" is likely to live on--particularly if the Bush administration's illegal alien amnesty-cum-"guest worker" program is implemented.

"It was hard to miss the echoes of [DeLay's endorsement of the Saipan system] a few weeks ago when President Bush proposed his guest worker program from Mexico," commented Miller in 2004. "Now, these workers are going to be committed to a single employer, they have no rights, they can be fired at any time. Where have we heard that before? Why, the Marianas Islands.... We're engaged in this race to globalization, and we go the last mile, and at the finish line we find Tom DeLay, making a virtue of slavery."
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:CORRUPTION
Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1U0GU
Date:Feb 6, 2006
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