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The Northern Mariana Islands, Tom DeLay, and Greed

The Northern Mariana Islands, Tom DeLay, and Greed

Out in the North Pacific lies a chain of 14 islands known as the Northern Mariana Islands.  These islands are an unincorporated territory of the US, which means that they are under US jurisdiction but only certain parts of the Constitution apply to them.[1][2]

The Northern Mariana Islands are a tourist spot, especially popular with Japanese tourists, and tourism dollars account for about one quarter of its GDP.  But the islands also attract other foreigners that end up working in the garment industry.  In fact, about a third of the inhabitants of the Islands are foreign workers.  The CIA World Factbook says, “Garment production is by far the most important industry with the employment of 17,500 mostly Chinese workers and sizable shipments to the US under duty and quota exemptions.”[3]

According to Senate Bill H.R. 730, $1,000,000,000 worth of garments were shipped to the US in 1998 alone.  However, the same bill goes on to report that the current minimum wage is at $3.05 per hour and that “sweatshop” conditions are prevalent on the islands.  Working and living conditions are unsafe and unsanitary, bonded and indentured servitude exists, and the workers are unable to form labor unions to protect themselves.[4]  Further investigations on conditions on the Islands revealed that the workers were regularly forced to work 70-hour work weeks without overtime.  It also came to light that Chinese workers, having paid $4000 or more to get to the Islands, were unable to pay off their indentures because of the low wages and were therefore virtual slaves.[5]

The plight of the workers was so obvious that the bill passed unanimously in the Senate in 2000.  However, it never made it to the floor of the House of Representatives because of one man: then Republican Whip Tom DeLay.[6]   Why would Tom DeLay want to prevent improving the lives of thousands of workers on an island chain thousands of miles away?  One word: Greed.  “The idea was to slip under the radar of U.S. quotas and duties, which would cost the manufacturers millions more if the garments were made outside U.S. territory,” according to Salon.[7]  And of course, keeping the wages low and providing substandard living conditions helped keep profits high.  So when it appeared that this could be in jeopardy, the government of the Northern Marianas turned to lobbyist Jack Abramoff to help them.  Salon reports that Abramoff and family members contributed over $18,000 to the DeLay campaign war chest, and that DeLay was a guest of the government on golf and snorkeling trips.[8]  DeLay saluted the island government and the sweatshop owners, saying “You are a shining light for what is happening to the Republican Party, and you represent everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America and leading the world in the free-market system."[9]

Tom DeLay ultimately resigned from the US House under allegations of influence-peddling within his staff, but the situation on the Islands has not changed.  The last effort to improve worker conditions was House Bill H.R. 5550, United States-Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Human Dignity Act, introduced in June of 2006, but it died without ever being debated or voted upon.[10]  So conditions on the Islands persist and that shirt that you own that says “Made in the USA” may actually come from the sweatshops of the Northern Marianas.

1:    CIA World Factbook, Northern Mariana Islands , https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cq.html
2:    “Territories of the United States,”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Territories_of_the_United_States
3:    CIA World Factbook, Northern Mariana Islands
4:    H.R. 730, http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/useftp.cgi?IPaddress=
5:    “Tom DeLay: Defender of Sweatshops,” Jeff Stein, Feb 4, 1999, http://www.salon.com/news/1999/02/04news.html
6:    “The real scandal of Tom DeLay,” Mark Shields, May 9, 2005, http://www.cnn.com/2005/POLITICS/05/09/real.delay/
7:    Stein, Feb 4, 1999
8:     ibid.
9:    Shields, May 9, 2005
10:    H.R. 5550 [109th]: United States-Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Human Dignity Act http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h109-5550

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