Former Garment Worker to Speak About Sweatshops

Carmencita Abad, a former Saipan garment worker, will be in Fulton Feb. 5 as part of a nationwide speaking tour to discuss the years she spent in a sweatshop making clothes for the Gap.

Abad, who prefers to be called Chie, will speak at 7 p.m. in Dulany Auditorium on the William Woods University campus, as part of the President’s Concert and Lecture Series.

The lecture is free and open to the public.

Chie spent six years as a garment worker on the Pacific island of Saipan, in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. During that time, she endured wretched working conditions, frequently working 14-hour shifts in sweatshop conditions to meet arbitrary production quotas.

She worked for the Sako Corporation, which makes clothes for the Gap, among other major U.S. retailers. After suffering the island’s intolerable living and working conditions for four years, Chie attempted to organize Saipan’s first garment worker union.

When the factory management learned of her organizing efforts, managers began an intense campaign against the formation of a union. They threatened employees that they would shut down the plant and, in general, intimidated workers, frightening them from supporting the union. The eventual union-certifying election was lost by only five votes.

Because of her attempts to organize employees at the factory, Sako management retaliated by refusing to renew Chie’s year-long work contract for the first time in five years. To prevent the loss of her job, Chie took her case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC was then able to obtain a preliminary injunction in federal court in October 1998 that prohibited Sako from firing Chie while the commission investigated the retaliation charge. Outraged by the treatment she had received, in January 1999 Chie chose to come to the U.S. to expose the harsh reality of Saipan to the American people.

She now serves as a spokeswoman for the workers of Saipan’s garment industry as she works with several U.S. organizations, including Global Exchange, on a $1 billion class-action lawsuit that hopes to improve living and working conditions on the island. In June 1999 the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Sako in federal court on Chie’s behalf

With no U.S. import tariffs, no U.S. quota restrictions, a minimum wage of $3.05 an hour and lax immigration laws, Saipan has become home to a host of apparel factories that make clothing for companies, including J.C. Penny, Tommy Hilfiger, Nordstrom and the Gap.

Although the arrangement has been a huge success for investors who save $200 million annually from not having to pay tariffs on garments shipped to the mainland, the workers in the factories have not been so lucky.

For the nearly 40,000 immigrants who work in Saipan—most of them from China, the Philippines and Bangladesh—life on the island is nothing less than indentured servitude.

Lured by the promise of good jobs in the U.S., foreign workers pay recruitment fees of up to $7,000 to work in Saipan. Once there, they often must sign contracts that waive basic rights, including the freedom to join unions, attend religious services, quit, or marry.

Because payment for food and lodging is taken directly from their paychecks, many workers do not earn enough to repay their recruitment fees by the time their year-long contract has expired. The Saipan factories often fail to pay overtime even though most workers put in far more than 40 hours a week.

Chie’s tour is sponsored by Global Exchange, a human rights organization closely involved with sweatshop issues.