International Women’s Day

March 8th is International Women’s Day. The factory floors of the global garment industry are mostly staffed by women, and these women have been fighting for fair labor conditions for decades.

One of the little known aspects of the recently-passed Fair Minimum Wage Act is its provision for fair labor standards in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or CNMI. The CNMI has for years been what Tom Delay has called “a perfect petri dish of capitalism”, an unregulated and mostly unnoticed island incubator for the garment industry, under the imprimatur of the United States. Garments made in the CNMI can bear the label “Made in the USA”, but the workers in CNMI garment factories are not protected by US minimum wage or labor protections.

These workers in these garment factories are often young women imported from southeast Asia, and forced into what amounts to indentured servitude. Women recruited to these factories must repay recruiter’s fees before they have access to their wages. They are also often required to repay living costs to their employers for housing and food. In order to meet these expenses, they are forced to work to the point of exhaustion.

“One or two days a week we’d work through an entire night, and I was exhausted,” says Chen Xiaoyan, 26, a nervous young woman with a thin ponytail who used to work for RIFU. “Sometimes we had no Sundays off either, but if you didn’t want to work they’d allow you no overtime at all as a punishment.”

Previous attempts to regulate labor conditions in the CNMI have been stymied by everyone’s favorite disgraced lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. Abramoff was hired by the CNMI government in 1995 to protect their interests in the garment industry, and used his pull with Republicans in the Congress to block dozens of bills which would have ensured basic labor protections for CNMI workers.

Some of the women who travel to the CNMI in the hope of finding work find themselves in far more sinister conditions. On February 8, 2007, Kayleen Entena testified to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

My name is Kayleen D. Entena. I am 23 years old; I am from Laguna Province in the Philippines. Laguna Province is about two hours by bus from Metro Manila. I am the eldest child in my family. I have four brothers, my father passed away when I was in elementary school. My mother works sometimes as a housekeeper. When I was recruited in the Philippines for work in Saipan in September, 2005, I was excited about the opportunity towork abroad. I was promised to be paid $400.00 a month to work as a waitress, they told me I would be working in a restaurant.

Entena goes on to testify that when she arrived in Saipan, she found that she had instead been recruited into a brothel. You can read her entire chilling testimony here (pdf).

I am hoping that this kind of illegal system will stop, the way it happened to me, the way I was treated. I do not want this to happen to anyone. I know that there are other women out in the community like me. They are just afraid to speak out because they don’t know where to go or just because they have to support their family back home. Please help change the way the government functions here on the CNMI. If there’s no change or people are not held responsible for their actions then it will continue to happen to innocent victims. I hope you will hear my wish. I am forever grateful.

The Fair Minimum Wage Act promises protections for women like Chen and Entena. The only thing which is currently preventing this bill from becoming law is the signature of President Bush.


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