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Micromanaging Micronesia? Playing politics with persecution

International | Reports of forced abortion and religious persecution in a U.S. island commonwealth played on the sympathies of religious conservatives in Washington. But a closer examination suggested a different conclusion: that the charges were trumped up for political advantage-greater federal control over a locally governed island and decreased economic competition for unions. Furthermore, taxpayer dollars may have been spent preparing and promoting a report that could be a sophisticated, unlawful lobbying operation.

Issue: "New attacks on taxes," April 18, 1998

People who know of the Northern Marianas, one of several Micronesian island chains that pin-dot the Pacific between Hawaii and the Philippines, might think of them as part of an out-of-the-way tropical paradise. The smaller islands are rocky volcanic ruins with just enough room for a two-lane highway.

It's a more complicated place than that. After World War II, the islands that make up Northern Marianas, along with the neighboring Marshall Islands, existed on a slim tourist trade-often made up of divers exploring the wrecks of Japanese warships-and welfare. Its conversion to a U.S. trust territory meant that many islanders could live in mind-numbing government dependence, with alcoholism and unemployment soaring.

Unlike other U.S. territories, when commonwealth status was bestowed on the Northern Marianas in 1976, the local government kept control over the islands' wage and immigration rules by a special "covenant," established in large part to attract U.S. investors. The local economy also attracts foreign workers, who nearly double the population of Saipan, the largest of the islands. There are 42,000 guestworkers, and 28,000 locals, who are U.S. citizens.

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But Department of Interior officials late last month began publicizing a government-sponsored investigation they claimed showed something other than a workers' paradise: that garment workers in Northern Marianas are subjected to low wages, poor living conditions, forced abortions, and prostitution rings. A government investigation team says this exploitation of foreign guestworkers on the islands has grown in tandem with its garment industry. A report by the team charges that the immigrants are often coerced into signing "shadow contracts" that subject them to low-paying jobs that may or may not materialize.

The report further charged that once inside the sweatshops, workers are subjected to long hours and "labor camp" quarters. They are asked to refrain from religious activity. Pregnant workers are forced to have abortions in order to keep their jobs. Female immigrants may also be diverted into what the report called "a burgeoning sex-tourism industry." According to Allen Stayman, who prompted the investigation as director of insular affairs for the Interior Department, all this adds up to a system that "is broken and cannot be fixed locally."

Those findings coincide with two bills pending in Congress, designed to bring the islands, a commonwealth of the United States since 1976, under additional Washington control. They also led to Senate hearings last week, where local government officials from Northern Marianas squared off against federal bureaucrats and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt over the charges. Deliberations before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ran more than six hours.

At the end of the day, however, more questions had been raised than resolved: Not only do the charges pose serious repercussions for the $1 billion-a-year, bursting-at-the-seams garment trade in Northern Marianas, but there is a growing dispute about the content of the Interior Department's investigation, as well as the motives under which it was conducted. The department's investigators described worker abuses as "rampant." Secretary Babbitt told the Senate panel Northern Marianas had created "a plantation economy" which "must not be allowed under the American flag."

Critics, suspicious of the government's extreme charges, replied that the department had zeroed in on "hot-button issues"-like abortion and religious persecution-in an effort to win Republican support for increased control of Northern Marianas. By the end of the March 31 proceedings, one member of the Senate panel had even contacted the department's inspector general, suggesting criminal charges be brought against department employees overseeing the probe.

Word of the government's allegations prompted Andrea Sheldon, executive director of Traditional Values Coalition, to visit the territory's main island, Saipan, late last summer. Because of Beijing's support of forced abortion and religious persecution policies, TVC was a vocal opponent of China's most-favored-nation trade status when that issue was before Congress. A conservative, Washington-based lobbying group with affiliation among 32,000 churches nationwide, TVC was a logical ally in a fight against those abuses in Saipan.

Miss Sheldon says Sen. Daniel Akaka contacted her personally to seek TVC's support. Sen. Akaka, a two-term Democrat from Hawaii, is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over all U.S. territories. He is also the sponsor, along with committee chairman Frank Murkowski, a Republican, of legislation that cedes control of immigration and minimum-wage law in Northern Marianas to the U.S. government and eliminates its trade benefits.

Camera in hand, Miss Sheldon went to Saipan, the largest and most densely populated island in the Marianas, and paid visits to its sweatshops, worker dormitories, and back alleys where abortions and prostitution rings had been reported. She told WORLD she was surprised to find clean and pleasant working conditions and immigrant employees who seemed more than content with their lot. At one factory, she spotted a Chinese woman wearing a "Jesus Loves You" T-shirt, a small but not insignificant clue, she said, that there was more religious freedom there than she had been led to believe.

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