Twenty-hour workdays, dangerous workplaces, indentured servitude -- these are the scourges of less civilized countries, right? Not quite. For decades, women in the Northern Mariana Islands -- an American commonwealth since 1975 -- have been working under conditions that one could imagine in some faraway backwater that never heard of workers' rights. Last spring, Ms. magazine's cover story (by Salon contributor Rebecca Clarren!) exposed the mostly female guest workers' egregious situation in the U.S. territory. Now the Feminist Majority Foundation has tipped us off to an e-mail campaign to senators that may finally change the fate of women who have been sewing our clothes with damn little to show for it.
A little background, in case you've missed past coverage of the issue: In factories subcontracted by major American garment companies like Gap, Ann Taylor and Ralph Lauren -- whose products often feature the supposedly sweatshop-free "Made in the USA" label -- workers are trafficked from China and the Philippines, only to find themselves working in deplorable conditions with horrendously long hours just to pay back traffickers who charge as much as $7,000 for a one-year contract. And as companies have closed down their Marianas operations and move to mainland China, the women's situations have gone from bad to worse. Stranded by their employers and owed months of back pay, some women have been forced into the islands' sex tourism industry.
Now that lobbyist Jack Abramoff (who represented Marianas factory owners) is chewing his cud in the slammer and the garment industry's best friend in government, Tom DeLay, is chewing his cud on the golf course, the Senate is moving to extend minimum-wage laws to workers in the Marianas -- though this welcome step still won't solve the worst of their gruesome working conditions. What's not clear is whether the powers that be will extend these guest workers all the protections of U.S. labor and immigration laws. And that's where a quick note to your senator to show someone's watching could really come in handy.