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Workers' dreams of America land them in sweatshop, suits allege

A factory in Saipan  
January 14, 1999
Web posted at: 9:40 p.m. EST (0240 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Carmencita Abad left her native Philippines hoping to find the American dream by taking a job on U.S. soil, working as a garment worker in the Northern Mariana Islands.

"I thought that since Saipan is part of the United States that I would find unlimited opportunities to earn a living," she said.

Instead, what she and tens of thousands of other young immigrants found were beatings, vermin-infested quarters, barbed wire and armed guards -- all while making clothing tagged "Made in the USA," according to class-action lawsuits filed this week against 18 clothing manufacturers.

Three lawsuits filed Wednesday allege that employees are lured to the U.S. territory with promises of good wages and then forced to work up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for less than minimum wage. The clothes they make go to retailers ranging from Wal-Mart and Sears to Tommy Hilfiger and J. Crew, the suits say.

"The litigation that we're filing ... presents a facial challenge to a system of indentured servitude in Saipan," attorney Al Meyerhoff said, calling the island "the worst sweatshop in America."

The lawsuits seek more than $1 billion in damages for conditions lawyers say have persisted for the past decade in the 13-mile-long tropical isle in the Central Pacific.

Two class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of the workers in federal courts in Los Angeles and Saipan. Human rights groups -- Global Exchange, Sweatshop Watch and the Asian Law Caucus -- joined the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees in filing suit in state court in San Francisco.

Of the 18 companies named in the lawsuits, Nordstrom, Warnaco, Tommy Hilfiger, J.C. Penney, Wal-Mart, OshKosh B'Gosh, Cutter & Buck Inc. and Dayton Hudson Corp. insist they hire subcontractors that strictly follow U.S. labor laws. Wal-Mart denied accepting merchandise from factories in Saipan.

The other companies named in the lawsuits are Associated Merchandising Corp.; Dress Barn; Gap; Gymboree Manufacturing; J. Crew; Jones Apparel Group; Lane Bryant; The Limited; May Department Stores Co.; and Sears Roebuck & Co. Those companies said they had no comment or did not return phone calls.

"The goods are, because they are being produced in the Marianas Islands, allowed to use 'Made in USA' labels. And consumers might believe that the workers are being protected by U.S. minimum wage," Meyerhoff said.

Saipan is part of the Northern Marianas, an island chain seized by U.S. troops from Japan in World War II that negotiated a commonwealth relationship with Washington. The deal left control of immigration and minimum wages in local hands and exempted Saipan's exports from U.S. duties and quotas.

Copyright 1999   The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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