Did you know that right here in the United States of America there are places where workers aren't paid the U.S. minimum wage? Where factory employees are kept against their will in barracks that are surrounded by barbed wire? Where workers have to sign pledges regarding religious behavior, pregnancy and marriage as a condition of employment? Where all these conditions are legal?
Allow me to introduce you to the Northern Mariana Islands.
In 1975 the Northern Mariana Islanders voted to join the United States, and since then residents have enjoyed U.S. citizenship and lived under U.S. law -- with two important exceptions. First, the importation of Asians as "guest workers" without citizenship rights has been permitted. Second, the U.S. minimum wage laws exclude this part of our country.
These two loopholes have led to dismal conditions in the islands. By 1999, more than 33,000 "guest workers" lived in the islands, a number greater than that of citizen residents. Their status is less one of "guest" and more one of wage slavery -- workers are required to pay up to $10,000 in "fees" for the privilege of leaving their jobs. These foreign workers live behind barbed-wire fences, eat infested food, sleep on cots in dormitories that they are forced to pay more "fees" for, work "off the clock" hours that they aren't paid for, all the while working in unsafe conditions for far less than the U.S. minimum wage.
Clothing companies like The Gap, Target and J.C. Penny have flocked to these Islands, and it's not hard to see why. Not only can they skirt U.S. labor codes that were implemented to protect workers from corporate abuse, they can stick a "Made in the U.S.A." label on their clothes, too. For an American public that is increasingly wary of foreign-made goods because of their association with sweatshop conditions, that "U.S.A." label is seen as a sign of ethical production. And while these sweatshop corporations are able to employ Asian wage slaves just like they do in other factory locations, they don't have to pay tariffs or any other importation fees. Lest you think it is a small problem, consider that more than $1 Billion worth of garments from the Marianas flood U.S. retail shops each year.
With such blatant abuse of people occurring regularly on U.S. soil, you'd think the Congress would do something about it. You'd think wrong: as Jim Hightower documents in his lastest book ("If the Gods Had Meant us to Vote, They Would Have Given us Candidates") scores of members of the House of Representatives (mostly Republican) have been treated to all-expense paid junkets to the lovely beaches and resorts of the Marianas (the tenement barracks have been conveniently left off the Representatives' itineraries). Surprise, surprise, they come back from their vacations -- excuse me, "fact-finding missions" -- strenuously opposed to any reforms.
Still, it's encouraging that some members of Congress have stuck to their principles and offered legislation that would ease the horrific conditions of the Marianas sweatshops. H.R. 965, sponsored by Democrat George Miller, would phase in the U.S. Minimum Wage, require good working conditions and wages as a condition for tariff forgiveness, and require U.S. standards of labor be met for the awarding of a "Made in the U.S.A." label. Sounds simple and decent, doesn't it? Unfortunately, this bill is struggling to stay alive.
What can you do to help this important legislation get passed? First, click here to read the legislation yourself so you don't have to take my word for it. Don't worry, they actually made this law legible. Second, click here to see an updated list of the supporters ("cosponsors") of the legislation. Is your Representative missing from the list? Well, then click here to get in touch with your representative's office and ask them why they've weaseled out.
After you've done these three simple things, consider getting in touch with the Republican leadership that's bottled this bill up. In particular, Tom Delay and Don Young, the power behind the speakership and the guy who's keeping this bill in committee, are worthy of a letter. Contact them using the information below. Good luck!
Rep. Tom DeLay
341 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-5951
FAX: (202) 225-5241
Rep. Don Young
2111 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 225-5765 - Phone
(202) 225-0425 - Fax
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