Tom DeLay, defender of sweatshops

The GOP Whip thinks that American companies using underpaid garment workers in distant Saipan is just fine.

By Jeff Stein
Published February 4, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

In the swirling spotlight that surrounds the presidential impeachment trial, it's finally Tom DeLay's turn to move into the hot seat. The slick-haired Texan with a fondness for calling President Clinton a liar is starting to face questions about his own contradictions.

A former business partner in DeLay's exterminating business in suburban Houston popped up in the pages of the New Republic this week with charges that the Republican whip had lied about his ties to the company in a 1994 lawsuit, and may have illegally siphoned off company funds to pay off campaign debts.

DeLay has excoriated the president for "trying to use legalese and lawyerese to do two-steps around the questions," author Ann Louise Bardach observed in her New Republic piece. But the three experts Bardach asked to examine DeLay's depositions -- under oath-- in the lawsuit concluded that he had done exactly the same thing.

DeLay's spokesman Michael Scanlon blew off the allegations as old news: "Our political enemies have been digging into Mr. DeLay's past for years," he said in a prepared statement.

Indeed they have, but they've been getting nowhere. Lacking a lurid enough angle in sex-obsessed Washington, they've had no success in knocking DeLay off his pedestal. Now, however, comes the faint cry of virtual slave laborers far out in the Pacific Ocean, as unlikely a threat as the nasty-tongued Republican could have ever imagined. But the faceless, nameless sweatshop garment workers of Saipan suddenly have some legal muscle.

The story really begins back in June 1944, when 71,000 U.S. Marines took Saipan from the Japanese Army at a terrible cost in blood. Planting the American flag there turned out to be critical. Fourteen months later a B-29 took off from nearby Tinian carrying the atomic bombs that would abruptly end the war. For the next half century the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, as they would become known, generally enjoyed the benign neglect of Washington. In 1986, the 27,000 islanders were granted American citizenship.

It was around this time, however, that mandarins from Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China began setting up textile factories on Saipan and importing labor from the mainland, as well as from Bangladesh and the Philippines, to cut and stitch cloth for garment makers including JC Penney, the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Clairborne, Jones New York, Abercrombie & Fitch, Levi Strauss, Nautica and many others -- a virtual Who's Who of designer labels. The idea was to slip under the radar of U.S. quotas and duties, which would cost the manufacturers millions more if the garments were made outside U.S. territory. Garments from Saipan are made from foreign cloth, assembled by foreign workers on U.S. soil and labeled "Made in the USA."

And they are made cheaply. Wages in the factories average about $3 per hour -- more than $2 less than the U.S. minimum wage of $5.15. No overtime is paid for a 70-hour work week. But that's hardly the worst of it. Far away from the swank beachside hotels, luxurious golf courses and the thousands of Japanese tourists snorkling around sunken U.S. Navy landing craft in the clear waters, some 31,000 textile workers live penned up like cattle by armed soldiers and barbed wire, and squeezed head to toe into filthy sleeping barracks, all of which was documented on film by U.S. investigators last year.

The unhappy workers cannot just walk away, either: Like Appalachian coal miners a generation ago, they owe their souls to the company store, starting with factory recruiters, who charge Chinese peasants as much as $4,000 to get them out of China and into a "good job" in "America." Their low salaries make it nearly impossible to buy back their freedom. And so they stay. The small print in their contracts forbids sex, drinking -- and dissent.

"I am very tired," wrote Li Zhen Hua, a 29-year-old Chinese woman in a letter to a friend obtained by the weekly Dallas Observer. "I want to go back to my country but I can't because we must keep [sic] two years ... Very busy. So hard. Every day work up to 1:30. I've to work on Sunday. Too much to respond to your letters."

Enter Tom DeLay and his Texas Republican sidekick, Dick Armey. When the Clinton administration sought to yank Saipan's factories into the 20th century in 1994, requiring the workers be paid a minimum wage, overtime and their living conditions improved, the island government hired a platoon of well-connected Washington lobbyists, headed by former DeLay aide Jack Abramoff, to block the plan. Abramoff, in turn, personally or through his family, contributed $18,000 to DeLay's campaign coffers. So far, the island government has paid the firm of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds $4 million for their efforts, records show. They also treated DeLay and Armey to trips to the island, where they played golf, snorkled and made whirlwind visits to factories especially spiffed up for the occasion, according to several accounts.

"Even though I have only been here for 24 hours, I have witnessed the economic success of the Marianas," DeLay told a banquet crowd. As for the critics of the plantation system, DeLay told the dinner crowd darkly, "You are up against the forces of big labor and the radical left."

The whip was apparently referring to the Clinton administration, whose official in charge of the Marianas, Insular Affairs Chief Al Stayman, wanted to change the sweatshop system. In a private e-mail from Abramoff to island officials, which was made available to Salon, the lobbyist vowed he would "impeach Stayman and his campaign."

Stayman is still on the job, but the Republicans, led by DeLay, have blocked every effort by the Democrats to hold hearings on the issue.

Help may be on the way, though, via a California law firm that this month filed a multimillion dollar suit against the factories in the name of "John Does 1-23." The suit, filed last week in Saipan and state and federal courts, accuses the firms of exploiting thousands of indentured foreign workers in sweatshop conditions on U.S. soil.

"A free market success," DeLay calls Saipan's indentured worker system. If the Republicans take a drubbing at the polls in 2000, however, DeLay shouldn't be surprised if vengeance is in the air, even from his fellow Texas fat cats. Scores of textile plants in cities like El Paso and Dallas have had to shutter their doors in the face of cutthroat competition from companies like those in Saipan.

All of which is ironic, considering how DeLay recently stood up for Chinese dissidents in a different context. On the eve of the president's visit to China last June, DeLay and 150 other Republicans signed a letter urging Clinton to call off his trip because of Beijing's treatment of religious and political dissenters.

Beijing had been cracking down on dissidents since the Tiananmen Square massacre a decade earlier, of course, but that didn't stop DeLay from making his own trip, paid for by a private foundation backed by private corporations with business in China.

"Some might say that gives hypocrisy a bad name," cracked Rep. Maurce Hinchey, a New York Democrat. But as the records unearthed from DeLay's extermination company this week showed, he's become an expert in that.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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