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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 216-220

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Northern Mariana Islands

Micronesia in Review: Issues and Events, 1 July 1999 to 30 June 2000

The garment industry continued to receive heavy criticism and negative actions in the course of the year under review. As noted in last year's report, class-action lawsuits targeting retail outlets inside the United States were filed against the garment industry in Saipan, Washington DC, and San Francisco. The Saipan lawsuit was filed on behalf of some 22 anonymous garment workers. In July an attempt was made in state and federal court to throw out the case because the workers [End Page 216] were not identified. Their lawyers claimed that identifying plaintiffs would subject them to harassment and possibly serious danger, both on Saipan and in their countries of origin. Judge Munson found that the fairness doctrine required the defendants to know who the plaintiffs are, and ruled against the garment workers. Their lawyers appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court, which overturned Judge Munson's decision.

As a result of the class-action suit, many garment retailers agreed to an out-of-court settlement, which included money to pay for monitoring the garment factories where they buy their products, attorney fees, and compensation for the workers. A $1.5 million fund was established by the retailers for this purpose. The decision was not welcomed by the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association, which wanted to go to trial to prove the charges were false. In order to compromise with federal enforcement agencies, however, the association made an arrangement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other federal agencies to provide workshops and other educational activities in the factories.

In February 2000 Speaker Ben Fitial introduced legislation to raise the ceiling on the number of contract workers and garment factories allowed in the commonwealth. Known as the Omnibus Labor Reform Act, it contained many other provisions to lift restrictions on private enterprise. However, by July 2000 this bill had not been passed. The Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the hotel association formed a group known as the Western Pacific Economic Council to keep lobbyist Preston Gates working in Washington to prevent a federal takeover of immigration and minimum wage in the commonwealth.

Efforts to bring the Northern Marianas into the federal immigration and wage system continued. The US Senate adopted by unanimous consent Bill 1052, which provided for a ten-year gradual implementation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and federal minimum wage laws. However, the bill languished in the House Committee on Natural Resources, whose chairman, Representative Don Young, has adamantly opposed attempts to federalize these issues. It is not expected to come to a vote before the November 2000 elections.

In a related series of events of major significance Representative Young's committee received information that the director of the Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) and a few of his staff members were engaged in possibly illegal activities. Young's committee subpoenaed the hard drives of all the computers in that office. Public Information Officer David North was found to have been feeding the Democratic national committee with negative information about Republican candidates who were opposing the administration's position on federalization. North had been using his office computer and working time to carry on this campaign. The Saipan Tribune newspaper suggested that the OIA campaign involved deliberately issuing negative information about the living conditions and treatment of the garment workers on Saipan. As soon as subpoenas were issued for [End Page 217] the computers, North resigned. As the story was breaking, OIA Director Alan Stayman transferred to the State Department as chief negotiator for talks with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia concerning the renewal of the compacts of free association with the United States. A hearing was held by Young's committee, but an official report has not been released.

In local elections, former governor Froilan Tenorio fielded a slate of candidates for the legislature under the banner of the new Reform Party. To nearly everyone's surprise, Ramon Guerrero defeated all candidates for the...