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.
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.
Miss Sheldon's assessment is amplified by Kok Hiong Pang, pastor of the Chinese Christian Church, the largest Chinese church in Saipan. He told WORLD that in six years of ministry to Chinese workers on the island, he had never experienced or heard of instances where the freedom to worship or practice religion had been hampered. Mr. Pang holds four weekly services at his church. Average attendance at each is well over 300.
Mr. Pang said that he and his wife had counseled women, who comprise the majority of the imported garment workers, in crisis pregnancies and other difficulties without ever encountering a worker who was being coerced into having an abortion or committing sex crimes. "There may have been a few cases where these things happen," said Mr. Pang, "but it is not 'rampant,' as the investigators say. This is a lie."
Along with its veracity, the conduct of the department's investigation is also under fire. Interior's director of insular affairs, Allen Stayman, hired a private investigator to conduct the probe, under a $100,000 contract with the government. The department's investigating team says it conducted 400 interviews in Northern Marianas in January and February as the basis of the report. During the Senate hearings, however, department officials said they were not prepared to turn over the report to the Senate committee, even though a draft version was shown prior to the hearings to The Washington Post and ABC News. Justice Department and Customs Service officials, which have jurisdiction over such investigations, asked that the outside report not be presented because they considered it unverifiable.
An open-door guestworker program supplies labor from China, Bangladesh, and the Philippines to garment manufacturers who relocated there in the 1980s. Most workers come only for a few years and live in company dormitories. Although at $3.05 an hour they are paid less than the U.S. minimum wage, most make more in several days than they could earn in a month in China. Since 1980, per capita income has increased threefold.
More than 30 factories on Saipan produce clothing for designer labels Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger. They also make apparel for The Gap stores, JCPenney, and others. According to the Journal of Commerce, Saipan sweatshops fill nearly 100 40-foot containers a week. These are fed to U.S.-flag ships in nearby Guam or Taiwan, then are shipped to the United States.
Allegations of forced abortion and worker abuse in U.S. territories are important enough to be taken seriously, no matter the source, says Joseph Rees, a former judge in American Samoa. Mr. Rees, now chief counsel to the House subcommittee on human rights, said further distinctions are needed in the issues facing Northern Marianas-to preserve both its autonomy and its adherence to the U.S. Constitution.
"Exactly where the minimum wage is set is something that should be left up to the commonwealth [of Northern Marianas]. Forced abortion is another matter. It can't be tolerated under our system," said Mr. Rees.
Critics of the Interior Department's campaign do not dismiss all its charges. "Forcing one woman to have an abortion is an atrocity," said Miss Sheldon, "and if there is religious persecution or worker abuses, then those in authority need to be nailed." Mr. Pang said he worked with the FBI to "nab" several nightclub owners who were using young girls. But the sensational nature of the current charges looks more like a bureaucratic conspiracy to end the territory's self-government and unionize its workers.
The Clinton administration finds itself in a contorted position when it comes to the forced-abortion charges. Abortion in Northern Marianas is illegal under commonwealth law, in sharp contrast to abortion-on-demand statutes in the 50 states. If abortions are being performed in "rampant" numbers as charged, federal officials would presumably have to make a choice: Should abortion providers be turned over to Marianas authorities for prosecution under commonwealth law, or let free under U.S. law?
"When they apprehend an abortionist, what will happen?" wonders Miss Sheldon.
Pedro Tenorio, governor of the islands, told the Senate panel: "We believe that Interior has lost sight of its role under the covenant. The covenant did not contemplate a federal relationship that dictates the internal affairs of the commonwealth."
Critics of the investigation are not concerned only about government overreaching. Sen. Rod Grams charges that the investigators may have even violated federal laws in the course of their inquiry. On the day of the hearings, Sen. Grams asked the Interior Department's inspector general to investigate Mr. Stayman and others. He said they were in violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in specific political activity.
"When a government employee willfully thumbs his nose at the Congress by hiring an 'investigator' whose sole purpose is to find evidence that will buy off Republicans," he wrote to Inspector General Wilma Lewis, "that is when I think you, in your role as an independent Inspector General, must act." He cited Mr. Stayman in particular for using taxpayers' dollars to hire a private investigator and taking the findings to the press before they were presented to Congress.
The charges against Interior further unravel already frayed relations between Secretary Babbitt and Congress. Last month an independent counsel was named by the Justice Department to investigate whether or not Mr. Babbitt falsified testimony to Congress concerning casino gambling on an Indian reservation.