[Update: The 'this' that I want to be true is: the story immediately following, about Fitial flipping. Not, of course, the facts I describe later, which I very much wish were false.]
"The Marianas Variety Online reports that Governor-elect Benigno R. Fitial says he will cooperate with federal authorities in the ongoing investigation of Rep. Tom Delay and former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom he once described as his “close friends.” House leadership spokesman Charles P. Reyes Jr. said Speaker Fitial “will comply with all the legal requirements asked of him.”"
If Fitial cooperates, he will have quite a tale to tell, and I hope he tells every word of it, and can document the whole thing. Start with how he became Speaker:
"Two former top aides of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's brokered a political deal here five years ago that helped land island government contracts worth $1.6 million for a Washington lobbyist now the target of a federal corruption probe.
Using promises of U.S. tax dollars as bartering chips, Edwin A. Buckham and Michael Scanlon traveled to these remote Pacific islands in late 1999 to convince two local legislators to switch their votes for speaker of the territory's 18-member House of Representatives. They succeeded.
Once in office, the new speaker pressed the governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to reinstate an expired lobbying pact with Jack Abramoff, now under grand jury and congressional investigation.
Within months of the visit, Abramoff's law firm had a contract paying $100,000 a month from the Marianas government. Also, the island districts of the legislators who switched sides soon won federal budget benefits from Congress, apparently supported by DeLay."
Abramoff had had a contract with the Northern Marianas, but it had been suspended because the islands were having fiscal problems. DeLay's aides (one of whom had moved on to lobbying, and one of whom was still on the federal payroll) travelled to the islands, met with the house members, both of whom claimed afterwards that the aides had promised them federal support for projects in their districts. Others deny this, but in any case, Fitial became speaker, Abramoff's contract was reinstated, and, by a curious coincidence, money for the projects was suddenly given priority and appropriated by committees DeLay served on.
That would be our tax dollars DeLay's aides felt so free to toss around.
So: why did the Northern Marianas have to hire a lobbyist? Well:
Once upon a time, the Northern Marianas were a small, sleepy group of islands, also known by the name of their capital, Saipan. They formally became a commonwealth ruled by the US during the Reagan administration, and :
"Though the Marianas’ indigenous peoples had won their prized U.S. citizenship, the entire population then amounted to one small town. In an effort to jump-start an economy, federal negotiators granted control of immigration, wage, and workplace standards to the commonwealth government. That’s when the islands grabbed the attention of rich people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea.
The most affluent and powerful man in the Marianas was a naturalized U.S. citizen named Willie Tan. (...) Tan and other venture capitalists had realized they could create a garment industry that was fully protected by U.S. trade laws and virtually immune to the obstructions of federal regulation. Imports from the U.S. came into the Marianas duty-free and without quotas, and exports from the islands moved past U.S. Customs without stirring so much as a breeze. 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."
Or, in short: they could run sweatshops, free of US labor standards, minimum wage laws, and the like, but also free of US Customs, import quotas and so on. As far as labor conditions went, it was the third world; as far as import restrictions, it was the USA. Moreover, they could mark their garments 'Made in the USA'. (I will never look at that label in quite the same way again.)
This gave sweatshops in the Northern Marianas a tremendous competitive advantage not only over sweatshops in places like China, which did have to obey import restrictions, but over garment factories in the US, who have to obey US labor standards and other laws. That is: DeLay was selling out industry in the US -- and even in his own district -- to provide favors for the Northern Marianas.
Back to our story:
"All the capitalists needed was a labor force. The indigenous islanders had no future as executives in this industry, nor did they fit the desired mold of factory workers. The Marianas capitalists instead contracted with recruitment squads that roved the provinces of China, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries. The arm’s-length arrangement meant the recruiters’ methods could not be directly connected to corporations chartered in the United States. Typically, the recruits were obligated to pay $5,000 to $7,000 for the privilege of signing one-year labor contracts that enabled them to work and receive housing and health care benefits in the U.S. In the places they came from, $5,000 to $7,000 was a fortune. Large families and communities of peasants raised the money for some of these young workers, whose riches earned in America were supposed to help feed and clothe them. But many recruits could never raise that kind of money. Some were steered to loan sharks in the Asian countries who had working arrangements with the recruitment agencies; more signed agreements in which they would see none of their wages until the “recruitment fees” were paid back. They were indentured workers, at best.
Many of these people had not seen any of the world beyond their villages. Several Bangladeshi men, hired to work in security, were told and believed they could ride the train from Saipan to Los Angeles. Chinese workers who became pregnant were forced to return to China to have an abortion or else have it performed at a clinic on Saipan. Most of the immigrant workers were women, many of them mothers of small children. One could spot their arrivals in Saipan. They came off the plane and 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. 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 showerhead 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.
There were about thirty factories. The young women worked upwards of seventy hours a week with no overtime pay, sometimes around the clock for two or three days to meet impossible quotas. They were paid $3.05 an hour to keep the sewing machines humming (the federal minimum wage was then $5.15 an hour). Three-plus bucks an hour must have sounded like an extravagant wage to poor girls in the backwaters of Asia, but they quickly found out they had no chance of coming out ahead; the employers billed them for their lodging and food, on top of withholding for the thousands of dollars many still owed on their contracts. Squares of raw fabric were piled up around their machines as high as they could reach; a glaring electronic production counter nagged them to work harder, longer, faster. The air was filled with dust and lint. Workers were not afforded the low-cost filter masks commonly worn by people with respiratory difficulties; for relief they wore rags over their noses and mouths like the bandanas of Old West desperadoes. If they fell asleep and ran a needle through a finger, there was no first aid station; all they got was a rebuke from a shouting supervisor who called them stupid. And those were the lucky ones.
On arrival in Saipan some workers found that their contracts were worthless. They were told their employer had gone bankrupt. Day laborers who had thought they were going to be security guards piled on top of each other at night in one-room hovels and explored ideas like selling their kidneys to raise enough money to go home. Saipan became a fixture of the booming global sex trade. Young Chinese women recruited for restaurant jobs were ordered to work in karaoke and topless bars where managers told them they had to drink and have sex with customers. They received no pay for this coerced prostitution. The so-called bar fines for their services went to their employers."
One of the main things Abramoff was paid to do was to keep federal laws from being applied to the Northern Marianas. Even conservative Republicans were appalled by the working conditions there. Mark Shields on CNN:
"Today, Frank Murkowki is the governor of Alaska, but from 1980 to 2002, he was a conservative Republican senator from Alaska. How conservative? His voting record earned him zero ratings from organized labor's AFL-CIO and the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, and perfect 100s from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Conservative Union.
But as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Frank Murkowski became furious at the abusive sweatshop conditions endured by workers, overwhelmingly immigrants, in the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, of which Saipan is the capital. (...)
Moved by the sworn testimony of U.S. officials and human-rights advocates that the 91 percent of the workforce who were immigrants -- from China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh -- were being paid barely half the U.S. minimum hourly wage and were forced to live behind barbed wire in squalid shacks minus plumbing, work 12 hours a day, often seven days a week, without any of the legal protections U.S. workers are guaranteed, Murkowski wrote a bill to extend the protection of U.S. labor and minimum-wage laws to the workers in the U.S. territory of the Northern Marianas. So compelling was the case for change the Alaska Republican marshaled that in early 2000, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Murkowski worker reform bill.
But one man primarily stopped the U.S. House from even considering that worker-reform bill: then-House Republican Whip Tom DeLay.
According to law firm records recently made public, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, paid millions to stop reform and keep the status quo, met personally at least two dozen times with DeLay on the subject in one two-year period. The DeLay staff was often in daily contact with Abramoff."
DeLay said of the Northern Marianas: "It's a perfect petri dish of capitalism. It's like my Galapagos Island."
To see what life was like in Tom DeLay's 'perfect petri dish', here are some reports of what happened to people who came to the Northern Marianas. As you read about the indentured labor, sexual slavery, forced abortions, and so on, bear in mind that DeLay claims to be a Christian, and thus claims to believe this:
""Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'"
From the Justice Department:
"Three individuals who were indicted last November on charges that they lured women from China, held them in slavery and forced them into prostitution pled guilty today in federal district court in Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, the Justice Department announced. (...)
As part of his guilty plea filed with the court, Soon Oh Kwon admitted that, in 1996 and 1997, Kwon Enterprises, in collaboration with Kwon's mother-in-law, recruited and brought women from China to Saipan to work at the karaoke club, where they were forced to have sex with customers. The women were not allowed to stop working for Kwon Enterprises until they had paid debts owed to Kwon and his family for bringing them to Saipan. In order to discourage the women from leaving without permission, the women were subjected to mental and physical coercion, which included threats to their lives, and their families' reputations in China. Soon Oh Kwon also admitted to brandishing a pistol at some of the women. Kwon and his wife also admitted that they threatened the women in order to prevent them from making complaints to the CNMI Department of Labor and Immigration."
From the SF Chronicle:
"She was forced to work long hours of unpaid overtime in order to meet production quotas. Her supervisor yelled constantly and beat the workers "whenever he felt like it," she said. He also forced her and others to "lend" him money that was never repaid. In the company dormitory where 120 workers lived, eight to a room, conditions were primitive: Food was unsanitary, and there were a total of three working toilets and five showers.
"They didn't respect us, and they made me feel like I wasn't a human being," the woman said.
As she worked 12- to 16-hour days stitching clothes for The Gap and other major clothing labels, she was trapped in an insidious system that gives the islands' employers near-total control over their 40,000 foreign contract workers. If they are fired for any reason, they are almost immediately deported to their home countries, where most face heavy debts to the corrupt government officials who gave them the jobs.
Late last year, the woman rebelled and filed a complaint with the islands' labor office. "My supervisor came to me and said, `You have a choice: Either you withdraw the complaint, or you get sent back to China.' I didn't know what to do, so he fired me," she recalled.
Now she wanders Saipan's 10- mile-long urban and industrial zone, looking for another job in the booming garment industry. But she worries that if the manufacturers find out that she is a plaintiff in last week's lawsuit, she will be blacklisted -- or deported immediately to China, where she still owes $5,000.
"What will I tell my family?" the woman asked, gazing reproachingly at her lawyer. "What will happen to us?" Her fingernails dug deeper into her hands as she spoke.
None of the plaintiffs who have given depositions in the case will reveal their names or those of their employers, because some are still working and others are looking for work. When a visiting reporter asked the woman whether she would recommend to her younger sisters that they come to Saipan, she was silent for a long moment, her hands twisting violently.
"I'd tell them, `Stay where you are, don't, don't ever --' "
Her voice caught, and she stopped. Her body seemed to collapse upon itself. She jumped up and rushed from the room, sobbing."
"A typical example is M.A.H. Durbar, who came in 1997 with 21 others who each paid $5,000 for jobs as security guards in Saipan -- a huge amount of money in Bangladesh, where the annual per-capita income is about $250. Durbar, 26, was told by the labor contractor that he was going to Saipan U.S.A., America, the land of the free -- located only a train ride away from Los Angeles.
A fiasco awaited the newcomers. Although the Northern Marianas government granted him a work permit, the jobs turned out to be nonexistent -- a collaborative scam mounted by the Bangladeshi contractors and an unscrupulous Saipan security firm, Benavente Security. Although a Northern Marianas court last July ordered Benavente to pay the Bangladeshis $104,684, the local government has been unable -- or unwilling, or perhaps too incompetent -- to collect.
"I sold my house and I borrowed to get this opportunity to come to America," Durbar said as he sat cross-legged on the floor of the small house he shares with 16 other destitute Bangladeshis. "Now I must go door to door, begging for work. I can't send money home to my family. They think I'm a liar, that because I'm in America, I must be making good money and spending it all at nightclubs, doing things with girls, rather than helping them pay what we owe."'"
The Galveston Daily News:
"Congressional investigators, national news organizations and the U.S. Labor Department have all supported claims that, in the 1990s, workers on Saipan were forced to work 14-hour days, often without being paid for their overtime. In some cases, the workers were locked in their factories while working and in their barracks when they were not.
Abad, who made clothing for the Gap and other retailers while she worked for the Seko Corp., said that was true in her case. “I used to live in a squalid barracks — thin roofs, thin walls, concrete floors and people slept in bunk beds with 14 people sharing one restroom — no hot water, no air conditioning,” she said.
The U.S. Justice Department has prosecuted cases in which Asian women paid thousands of dollars to recruiters who promised them jobs as restaurant workers on Saipan. The women emigrated there only to be forced into prostitution.
Abad said that some garment workers faced similar horrors. “Women were fired for being pregnant,” she said. “And to keep her job, any pregnant woman would either go to an illegal abortionist or try to induce miscarriage by drinking herbal potions or falling down on purpose. Women who are fired from work have no way to support themselves aside from the sex trade. There’s no way to feed yourself aside from that.”
Abad said things have subsequently gotten better for workers in Saipan.
She was part of a class-action suit targeting working conditions there. In 2002, 26 retailers settled, paying $23 million in back wages to garment workers. A garment workers’ oversight board was also created."
Employer blamed for mass food poisoning, HONG KONG STANDARD, April 9, 1999 (no link; got it through Lexis/Nexis):
"A LOCAL company has rejected claims that it is to blame for the poisoning of hundreds of garment workers in the United States territory of Saipan. American health officials say 1,176 workers at clothing factories owned by Tan Holdings, part of Luen Thai International Group, based in Kowloon, fell ill with food poisoning at the end of last month. About 300 people required intravenous fluid injections. No deaths have been reported. ''It kind of looked like a battle zone,'' Frank Strasheim of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said. ''People were lying on the ground with IVs (intravenous injections) sticking out of them.'' The US Centres for Disease Control are investigating the case. ''I've never seen a food poisoning case of this magnitude,'' said Mr Strasheim, a 28-year veteran with OSHA.
Luen Thai is owned by Tan Sui-lin. His son, Willie Tan, manages Tan Holdings, one of the most powerful companies on Saipan. Human rights organisations say Tan Holdings failed to provide a safe environment for its employees. ''Workers have fallen ill due to the horrible working conditions they are forced to endure,'' said Medea Benjamin, a spokeswoman for the human rights group Global Exchange. Ms Benjamin said drinking water provided to the workers was contaminated with e.coli bacteria and faecal coliform. The latter can cause dysentery, hepatitis, cholera and other diseases. Steven Pixley, a lawyer for Tan Holdings, denied the accusations. ''There really has not been any determination to the cause of the outbreak,'' he said. Global Exchange said 50 other Tan Holdings workers became ill on 6 February. They were denied medical treatment, and locked in their barracks, Ms Benjamin claimed. Factory officials refused to allow health inspectors into the factory, she said. Tan Holdings denies this charge. The US Department of Labor ordered the company to pay US$1.2 million (HK$9.36 million) in back wages and overtime in 1992. It is also among the companies being sued in an American class action lawsuit filed on 18 January."
Report by Rep. George Miller (1998):
"In a particularly egregious case, Congressman Miller met several young Chinese men who had been recruited at a cost of $7,000 apiece on the promise of making $1,000 a month in the construction industry on Saipan. They were originally denied entry into the CNMI because they were told their prospective employer, JNJ International, a Chinese-Korean partnership, was bankrupt (although there was wide speculation that they were temporarily denied entry because of the presence of federal officials.) Although these men asserted they had signed no contract with JNJ, they were admitted one month later to work for the same supposedly bankrupt employer, who abandoned them. (...) The men told Congressman Miller they dared not return to China without the money to repay the loan sharks who had advanced them the money to pay their recruitment fees. In desperation they asked the Congressman if he could help them arrange the sale of their kidneys to cover their loans and finance their return to China."
(Note: the Miller Report has many more cases. I only transcribed the first. It's heartbreaking and horrible.)
Here's what Tom DeLay had to say about working conditions in the Northern Marianas:
"“Incredible lies” was the way House Majority Leader Tom DeLay described charges that some foreign workers on Saipan labored in sweatshops in the 1990s while others were forced into sex slavery.
DeLay’s vehement denials come despite findings by two federal agencies and by congressmen from both parties that the charges were true."
So, to recap: Tom DeLay spent years more or less single-handedly blocking the application of US labor standards and other laws to the Northern Marianas. In so doing, he perpetuated the existence, in our country, of a system of debt peonage, in which desperate people from other countries went into debt to buy a sweatshop job, and then found themselves with no recourse if they were forced into sexual slavery, or never paid, or forced to work eighty hour weeks, or made to live and work in appalling conditions. At the same time, his aides appear to have interfered with the election of the Speaker of the House of the Northern Marianas in such a way as to install someone who would hire DeLay's friend Jack Abramoff. And the contract was lucrative: "Since 1995, Abramoff and two law firms where he was a partner collected more than $7.7 million from the commonwealth government, records show."
As I've said before, apropos of other scandals: it's hard to prove a quid pro quo unless someone flips. If the story in Marianas Variety Online is right, Fitial has flipped. I hope the story is true, and that he will tell us all about it, in excruciating detail. I hope he kept every email and shred of paper he ever received from anyone connected with this case. Because this one is truly ugly, and its participants deserve to be nailed.
UPDATE 2: I should have been clearer about this, but: the point of this post was to describe the Northern Marianas at the time Abramoff and DeLay were lobbying for them, during the mid- and late 1990s. (That's why all the articles describe conditions at that time, and why I went to Lexis/Nexis.)Conditions there have improved since then; as I understand it, this was due to a change in the Islands' leadership, and no thanks to DeLay. (E.g.: "Since 2001, a new governor and a lawsuit have brought changes to the island’s labor regulations, but in the 1990s, they were the subject of a heated debate in the Congress.")
I somehow had the idea, when I posted this, that I had said somewhere: look, this is about the time Abramoff and DeLay were most heavily involved in this stuff; it has improved since. But on rereading, I didn't. I'm sorry about that.