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The US General Accounting Office defines a sweatshop as a business that regularly violates wage, child labor, health and/or safety laws. While sweatshop abuses in the garment industry have been an issue of public concern for decades, few people know about the sweatshops of the booming electronics industry. Behind the gleaming facade of the high tech industry are thousands of low-paid, mostly immigrant women, who assemble the nuts and bolts of our computers using hundreds of toxic chemicals. January 14, 1999 The San Francisco Chronicle William Carlsen, Staff Writer Thousands of Asian women are forced to work under slavery-like conditions on the U.S. commonwealth island of Saipan making clothing that top garment retailers are selling for huge profits, according to a sweeping lawsuit filed yesterday in San Francisco. In a series of suits filed in state and federal court, human rights groups claim that foreign clothing firms are passing off the apparel as ''Made in the USA.'' Because of Saipan's commonwealth status, retailers have avoided more than $200 million in tariffs. Lawyers filing the suits yesterday described inhumane working and living conditions on the island, including long hours of work at sub- minimum wages, poor ventilation in hotbox factories, physical abuse -- including forced abortions -- and concentration-camp rat-infested living conditions, complete with guarded barb-wire compounds. The three suits, filed in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Saipan, name as defendants the Gap, Nordstrom, Tommy Hilfiger, May Co., Sears, Wal-Mart and most of the big names in clothing and retail, as well as a number of apparel manufacturers and contractors. The class-action suits, which seek $1 billion in lost wages and damages, were brought on behalf of 25,000 so-called ''guest workers,'' mostly Asian women, and they allege violations of labor, racketeering, human rights and business laws. ''To allow such squalid conditions to persist on American soil is both patently unlawful and morally reprehensible,'' said Al Meyerhoff, one of the lead attorneys. Apparel companies and retailers ed yesterday denied that their subcontractors violate any laws. They said they have conducted inspections and would stop doing business with vendors they believed were in violation of the law. Nordstrom, for example, said it inspected two facilities in Saipan in October and did not find violations. ''There was no cause for concern at that time,'' said Brooke White, a spokeswoman for the company. ''We make announced and unannounced inspections and look at working conditions, wages, the ages and numbers of workers and the safety of the facilities and operations.'' ''We realize that this is in conflict with the allegations in the lawsuits, and we are eager to get a copy of the suits so we can continue our investigation.'' Rhonda West, a spokeswoman for the May Department Store Co., said the company takes the allegations ''very seriously, and we'll investigate fully to ascertain the facts.'' But, she added, the company insists that its suppliers and vendors fully comply with applicable wage and labor laws. The Gap, which is based in San Francisco, issued a statement saying the company was ''deeply concerned about the allegations.'' ''Gap Inc. does not tolerate this type of conduct in the factories where we do business,'' the company said, noting that it monitors ''conditions to ensure that workers are treated with dignity and respect.'' Saipan, one of chain of western Pacific islands known as the Northern Marianas, came under U.S. control after World War II. In 1975, the islands gained U.S. commonwealth status. Yesterday's legal action stems from exemptions from minimum wage and immigration laws that the islands negotiated with the United States at the time. In recent years, aware of lax laws and regulations, Asian-based companies have flocked to Saipan, the commonwealth's main island, to set up dozens of apparel factories. Because of their commonwealth status, the islands enjoy favorable U.S. tariff and duty protections. This has permitted companies in Saipan to ship their products to the mainland without paying duties, according to yesterday's suits, and allows them to label the goods ''Made in the USA,'' or ''Made in the Northern Mariana Islands, USA.'' Lawyers representing the island's garment workers called Saipan ''America's worst sweatshop'' yesterday. They said thousands of the workers, mostly women brought from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand, work and live like indentured slaves. Lured with the promise of high wages and U.S. working conditions, they are instead often forced to work seven-day weeks, 12 hours a day, with no overtime, sometimes without pay or at pay below the U.S. minimum wage, the attorneys said. ''Many live in a room with up to seven other people in inward-pointing barbed wire-enclosed barracks, their movements strictly supervised by guards and subject to lockdowns or curfews,'' said a statement released with the lawsuits. Many fear deportation and cannot return home because they must first repay ''recruitment fees'' of up to $7,000, the suits allege. ''Unfortunately, indentured servitude is alive and well in many parts of the world, including the United States,'' said William Lerach, another lead attorney. ''Companies like the Gap and Wal-Mart have reaped millions in profits from this scheme. Now they will be held accountable.'' The suits were brought by the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees, AFL-CIO (UNITE), and three local nonprofits, Global Exchange and the Asian Law Caucus, both in San Francisco, and Sweatshop Watch of Oakland. Sweatshop Watch Press Release January 13, 1999 15,000 Workers Living in Indentured Servitude While Producing Goods "Made in the USA" More Than $1 Billion Sought -- Defendants Include The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, May Company, Sears and Wal-Mart In the first-ever attempt to hold U.S. retailers and manufacturers accountable for mistreatment of workers in foreign-owned factories operating on U.S. soil, litigation was filed today in California and Saipan against 18 high-profile U.S. clothing manufacturers and retailers, including The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, The Limited, J.C. Penny, May Company, Sears and Wal-Mart. These companies are accused of violating federal law by engaging in a "racketeering conspiracy" using indentured labor -- predominantly young women from Asia -- to produce clothing on the island of Saipan. (Saipan is part of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Commonwealth in the South Pacific.) Their foreign-owned garment contractors in Saipan are also charged with failing to pay overtime and ongoing intolerable work and living conditions. In the last five years, contractors in Saipan have received more than 1,000 citations for violating U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, many of which characterized capable of causing death or serious injury. Two federal class action lawsuits were filed on behalf of more than 50,000 workers from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand. The workers were allegedly drawn to Saipan with the promises of high pay and quality work in the United States. Instead, they found themselves working up to 12-hour days, seven days a week, often "off the clock" without receiving any pay or overtime. A third companion lawsuit was filed in California state court by four labor and human rights groups (Sweatshop Watch, Global Exchange, Asian Law Caucus, and UNITE). The lawsuit accuses the retailers and manufacturers of using misleading advertising and trafficking in "hot goods" manufactured in violation of U.S. labor laws. Together, the three lawsuits are seeking more than a billion dollars in damages, disgorgement of profits and unpaid wages. "To allow such squalid conditions to persist on American soil is both patently unlawful and morally reprehensible," said Al Meyerhoff, one of the lead attorneys. "Saipan is America's worst sweatshop." According to the lawsuits: * Garments made in Saipan's sweatshops may carry a "Made in the USA" of "Made in the Northern Marianas, USA" label. American consumers are deceived into believing they have purchased a product made by American workers protected by U.S. labor laws, that guarantee a decent wage and a clean, safe work place. * Last year alone, the federal government estimated that contractors and U.S. retailers avoided more than $200 million in duties for $1 billion worth of garments shipped from Saipan, that would otherwise have been paid for the same clothing if it were manufactured in China or the Philippines. Some Chinese garment interests have moved their textile operations to Saipan virtually "lock, stock and barrel," in large part, to avoid U.S. duties and quota restrictions. The federal government estimates that this increase in Chinese apparel production in Saipan has allowed China to exceed its import quota by 250% in 1997 alone. * Although Saipan's garment factories are owned predominantly by Chinese and Korean companies, quality-control inspectors from The Gap, The Limited, and other U.S. retailers allegedly oversee the manufacturing process. Still, they have refused to exercise their power to mitigate the intolerable working and living conditions. * Over 90% of garment industry jobs in the Marianas are held by foreign "guest workers." These and other foreign workers make up more than half of the estimated total Marianas population of 70,000. This is largely due to the Island's exemption from U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws instituted to encourage local economic development. Since 1996, over 200,000 apparel industry jobs were lost in the continental United States. * With promises of a good job and a new life, workers agree to repay recruitment fees from $2,000 to $7,000. They often must sign "shadow contracts" waiving basic human rights, including the freedom to date or marry. * The crowded, unsanitary factories and shanty-like housing compounds are in flagrant violation of federal law. The heat in some factories is so extreme it can cause workers to faint. Many live in a room with up to seven other people in inward-pointing barbed wire-enclosed barracks. Their movements are strictly supervised by guards, and are subject to lo

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