Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What does "Made in the USA" really mean? by Natalia Thompson

Most of the clothes that hang in your closet probably come from overseas. You might have noticed that their labels tell you they were made in Vietnam, China, Honduras, Mexico, Thailand, maybe Pakistan.

Chances are, you’ve heard that child labor, poor working conditions, and low wages (if any) are often associated with clothing produced in developing (or third world) countries. What you might not know is that the clothes you wear with an American label (like those that say, “Made in USA”) might have been produced under those same conditions—and they might not have been made in the United States at all, at least not in actual U.S. territories.

As Ms. Magazine reported last spring, the Mariana Islands (located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Asia) have become a source of cheaply created clothing that still features the “Made in USA” labels so coveted by clothing manufacturers.

Technically, the Mariana Islands are part of the U.S. The islands were taken by the U.S. during World War II, and in 1975, they became a commonwealth of the U.S.—meaning its citizens are U.S. citizens and subject to most U.S. laws. But until this year, one law that the Mariana Islands weren’t required to follow was the minimum wage law. While minimum wage in America was set at $5.15 per hour (it was recently increased to $7.25), in the Marianas, it was only $3.05.
Without having to pay their workers fair wages, big corporations have been able to important thousands of “guest workers” from poor Asian countries (mainly women from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Thailand). Most workers arrive with only a third- or fourth-grade education, and most have left children and families behind in their home countries. They often hope to make enough money to send home to their families, but they often find that’s not the case. A 22-year-old Chinese worker told Ms, “The recruiter told us that in America it’s a very free country, and because we had never been here we believed them. They were lying.” Another worker added, “This is a dark, dark place in America. It’s a nightmare here.”

Poor wages aren’t workers’ only problems. Sex slavery, or trafficking women into prostitution, has also become a thriving industry on the Marianas. Even women who land jobs in garment-making face terrible working conditions; some have worked up to 20 hours each day in terrible sweatshop conditions.

After years of ignoring the working conditions on the Marianas (thanks to years of work by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to keep wages in the Marianas low), Congress is finally paying attention. Last month, Congress passed the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, bringing the $7.25 minimum wage to the Marianas and other U.S. territories. And on February 8, Congress held hearings on the current conditions in the Marianas.

(A side note: The White House opposes the new law, and is trying to get the Senate to add in tax breaks for small businesses to the bill).

I’m glad that we finally have lawmakers who realize the importance of standing up for exploited women workers. But better wages aren’t enough. Women working in the Marianas deserve better working conditions as well—Congress should also address the sweatshop labor conditions women still face, the continuing problem of sex slavery and human trafficking (the Marianas are still exempt from most U.S. labor and immigration laws), and the lack of real reproductive healthcare for women on the islands.

Please contact your Congress members to ask them to continue fighting for the rights of workers on the Mariana Islands.

For too long, the U.S. citizens living on the Marianas have been ignored by the very people who make the laws they live under. It’s time to change that.

- Natalia Thompson, 15

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found this to be a very well-written and informative article. I was unaware of the problem of workers in the Marianas Islands not being protected by the minimum wage and overtime laws. This is an important issue.

Another way of protecting the rights of working people - including young women - is by supporting their right to join labor unions.