Rebecca Clarren, an investigative journalist based in Portland, Ore., traveled to Saipan in February on assignment for Ms.The article below is excerpted from an exclusive investigative report that appears in the Spring 2006 issue of Ms. magazine. To read the full article , look for Ms. on 7,757 newsstands across the country—or subscribe at www.msmagazine.com.
A naked Mongolian woman in a blond wig grinds her body around a silver pole. As music pounds through the small room, disco lights reveal an overweight, graying man in a Hawaiian shirt sitting in the corner, rubbing the thighs of another of the club’s dancers.
Outside this Saipan nightclub, scantily-clad Chinese girls, their hair dyed red or blond, sit on cheap white plastic chairs. “You want massage?” they call out to the Asian businessmen and U.S. Navy sailors who frequent the club.
“I can get you lots of Chinese girls,” says a man with one long fingernail, who calls himself Free. “You can take a girl back to her room and do whatever you want to her. All night.”
One would imagine that Tom DeLay, a right-wing Christian, would be appalled by the teeming red-light district of Saipan, the main island in the Micronesian chain of the Northern Marianas. Or Jack Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew. Yet these two men have been among the strongest supporters of an exploitative labor and immigration system on Saipan that has helped fuel not just this sex tourism, but work arrangements that are tantamount to indentured servitude.
When asked about reports of forced prostitution and labor abuses, DeLay told the Galveston County Daily News in May 2005: “Sure, when you get this number of people, there are stories of sexual exploitation. But in interviewing these employees one-on-one, there was no evidence of any of that going on. No evidence of sweatshops as portrayed by the national media. It’s a beautiful island with beautiful people who are happy about what’s happening.”
No evidence? DeLay’s support persisted even when a Department of Interior report documented that workers in Saipan’s garment factories were coerced into having unwanted abortions. The damage continues to this day, even though both men have been stripped of their power.
The Northern Mariana Islands are a U.S. territory, and thus subject to most U.S. laws. But the 30,000 “guest workers” there—predominately women from China, the Philippines, and Thailand who sew clothing for top-name American brands, which are then allowed to label them “Made in Saipan (USA),” “Made in Northern Mariana Islands (USA)," or simply “Made in USA”—are not covered by U.S. minimum-wage and immigration laws.
At its peak, the factories in the Northern Marianas annually exported garments worth $2 billion retail to the U.S. Considering that the success of the industry was tied closely to its low wages and exploitative guest worker program—and the fact that it was exempt from tariffs or quotas on exports to the U.S. mainland—it’s not surprising that both the Marianas’ government and the garment manufacturers have fought long and hard to maintain the deal.
So they hired Jack Abramoff, the formerly high-flying Republican lobbyist. First at the Washington, D.C., law offices of Preston, Gates, Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds and later at Greenberg Traurig, Abramoff and his team brought in nearly $11 million in fees from the Northern Marianas government and Saipan garment manufacturers to block Congressional efforts to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the islands’ exemptions from U.S. immigration laws. His efforts focused on the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. territories. And he also cultivated powerful allies in the House leadership—notably Tom DeLay, who, as majority whip at the time, could keep a bill off the House floor even if the Resources Committee voted in its favor.
One of Abramoff’s favorite tactics for influencing Congress was to arrange Saipan junkets for members of Congress and their staffers. As many as 100 people connected to the U.S. Congress—members themselves or their staffers—traveled to the islands. Among the islands’ visitors were DeLay, his wife and daughter and six of his aides. DeLay would later tell The Washington Post,: “[The islands are] a perfect petri dish of capitalism.”
Meanwhile, the garment industry on Saipan has begun to decline with the expiration of worldwide quotas on apparel exports to the United States. Garment makers are moving off Saipan to even lower-wage countries such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Desperate to earn money and pay back their recruitment fees, some unemployed garment workers have found themselves turning to another lucrative industry on Saipan: sex tourism. There are no reliable statistics, but an estimated 90 percent of the island’s prostitutes are former garment workers.
When Ms. contacted DeLay during its investigation, his spokesman Michael Connolly said, “He stands by the things he has said in the past and he stands by the votes he’s made that pertain to the islands.”
Rep. George Miller, D.-Calif., who has championed efforts to raise the minimum wage in Saipan, hopes that the recent indictment of Abramoff offers a chance for real change in the Marianas. He has requested that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the House Resources Committee chair, Richard Pombo, R.-Calif., launch a full investigation of Abramoff’s dealings in the Marianas.
“It’s so ironic that people who talk about themselves as having family values are allowing these guest workers to be exploited in the harshest possible ways,” says Miller. “Their money and lobbying allowed the continuation of the worst of human behavior.