House Approves Greater Labor Protections for Marianas Islands

The Marianas in the western Pacific, tainted by past associations with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and reports of sweatshop labor, would come under greater federal immigration and labor law controls with legislation that passed the House on Tuesday.

The bill, approved by voice vote, extends immigration law and creates a federally run guest-worker program in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which includes Saipan and 13 other islands north of Guam.

It would also give the commonwealth a delegate in the House with limited voting powers. Currently Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia have a delegate in the House. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

The islands gained a reputation in the 1990s for garment factories where clothing, carrying "made in U.S." labels, was produced by foreign workers, often from China and the Philippines, under abusive, sweatshop conditions.

But congressional efforts to legislate reforms were blocked by disgraced former lobbyist Abramoff, working for the CNMI government, and his allies in Congress, including former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Now, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., Abramoff is in jail on unrelated fraud charges, DeLay is no longer in Congress and "we pass a bill that restores the human rights to those individuals working in the CNMI."

Currently, up to 20,000 of the estimated 65,000 people on the islands are foreign nationals, but that number is decreasing due to the decline of the commonwealth's garment industry under increased competition from China.

The commonwealth's governor, Benigno Fitial, has opposed the legislation, saying it doesn't reflect recent steps to end labor abuses and that turning over immigration and guest worker controls to bureaucrats 8,500 miles away in Washington would impede efforts to attract Asian investment to revive the islands' faltering economy.

Fitial, in a recent speech, said it would deprive Marianas residents, who are U.S. citizens, of local control. "We fear it will kill jobs. We worry it will keep us in the deep economic depression that we are working hard to get out of. And we know it will eliminate the new worker rights that we just passed into law."

Supporters of the bill also said greater federal controls over the islands' entry points was needed out of security concerns in a post-Sept. 11 world and with the prospect of a greater military presence in Guam and the islands as the U.S. reduces its forces in Okinawa.