A black gentleman in a tuxedo and bowler hat holds open the door to Nordstrom's new flagship store on Pine Street. Just past the lipstick bar, a man in formal dress plays soothing piano music as shoppers peruse $145 trousers, $800 suits, $180 shoes, $79 T-shirts.
The label of one $79 T-shirt reads, "Made in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (U.S.A.)." Bruce Sui, a political refugee from Saipan, the main island of the Northern Mariana Commonwealth, does a double-take when he sees the price. "Seventy-nine dollars!" At that rate, he calculates, a person should only have to make six shirts in a month to earn a decent living, not the 70 shirts an hour demanded by Saipan's sweatshop bosses.
Seattle's most famous department store is thousands of miles away from Saipan. But Nordstrom--along with Seattle's oldest and most respected law firm, Preston Gates & Ellis--has made profitable use of Saipan, where the benefits of U.S. trade laws apply but the responsibilities of U.S. labor and immigration laws do not.
During the last four years, Nordstrom has shipped an estimated $18.3 million worth of clothing from Saipan, and Preston Gates & Ellis has earned $5.6 million by lobbying against U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws in Saipan and the other islands in the commonwealth.
Today Nordstrom is one of 18 clothing companies being sued for $1 billion in damages and unpaid wages for illegally profiting from a system of peonage and involuntary servitude on U.S. soil; and the lawyers at Preston Gates & Ellis are ducking all phone calls regarding their firm's role in a fiasco that is fast becoming a national embarrassment.
VIRTUAL EMPLOYEES OF THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT
Bruce Sui is a Chinese man who is seeking political asylum in the U.S. He lives in a small Seattle apartment provided by Catholic Refugee Services, and works for a printing company on lower Queen Anne Hill.
Sui fears that back in mainland China, his wife and family are in danger because of his cooperation with the U.S. government, in exposing the working conditions within the garment industry in Saipan. He says that his wife has been visited by Chinese officials, who told her, "We know about your husband overseas. Be careful!"
In broken English, Sui tells the story of his introduction to Saipan. He was employed as a printing machine operator, earning $2.15 an hour in a company owned by a top official from the Labor Ministry of the People's Republic of China.
Sui first became politically active when women at his church began telling him of their working and living conditions--the outrageous quotas; the bad food; the lack of freedom; the hot factories; the cramped and filthy living quarters surrounded by barbed wire. They told him that not only weren't the bosses paying overtime, they weren't even paying hourly rates. Many of the women were routinely working from 8:00 a.m. till midnight, and not being paid for the overtime hours it took them to reach their quotas. Some were under such pressure to pay off their debts that they were working nights as prostitutes for Japanese businessmen on sex holidays.
As virtual employees of the Chinese government, the women manufacturing the clothes were expected not to get pregnant. Those who did, the workers told Sui, were forced to eat medicine to kill the baby, or else pay $300 to $500 for an operation.
Abortion is supposedly illegal in the C.N.M.I.
When Sui helped some women file a complaint, the government sent inspectors into the factory to check on the wage issue. Sui later learned that the company had organized an elaborate double-billing scam; as soon as the inspectors left, the workers had to return their checks.
Eventually the U.S. Department of Labor ended up suing the company, with Sui's help. Of the 12 garment workers originally willing to testify, only two women ended up talking. Both went into hiding in Saipan as the case progressed, as did Sui.
"The Chinese government knew I helped," says Sui. "They want to send me back to China, to jail."
Sui managed to elude the authorities for years. He helped an ABC 20/20 news team research an investigative report that ran last year. He worked with private investigators sent in to look into human rights violations for the Department of the Interior. He introduced the investigators to a woman named Tu Xiao Mei, who said her boss had ordered her to have an abortion, and fired her when she refused.
Tu Xiao Mei had planned to speak at a U.S. Senate hearing on the situation in the C.N.M.I., held in Washington, D.C. last spring, along with Sui and other guest workers from the C.N.M.I. But she became scared and asked to go home. Sui explains, "Many Chinese people know, if you make trouble for the Chinese government, you have a very bad time. The Chinese government wants to control the people. That is the number one thing for them."
Sui sat in the front row at the Senate hearing. There were cameras everywhere. Although Sui didn't recognize the faces, the room was packed with Preston Gates' people.
Through a translator, Sui testified of a corrupt system of inequality: of desperate foreigners who don't speak the language, who are vulnerable to a variety of abuses and rip-off schemes and lies.
Then he waited for something to change.
GUEST WORKERS OUTNUMBER CITIZENS
Over the past 20 years, Jack Abramoff has served as chair of the College Republican National Committee; executive director of Ronald Reagan's favorite political organization, Citizens For America; and as a behind-the scenes advisor to Newt Gingrich and the Christian Coalition. Today Abramoff is a lobbyist for Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, the D.C. office of Preston Gates & Ellis.
Abramoff was hired after the Republican takeover of Congress, and from the summer of 1995 through the end of last year he served as the firm's lead lobbyist for its most lucrative contract--with the government of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
The C.N.M.I. is a U.S. protectorate in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a chain of 14 islands 3,300 miles west of Hawaii. The United States government took control of the islands during World War II, and in 1976 entered into a covenant with the local government there. To stimulate the economy in the islands, the U.S. has allowed companies in the C.N.M.I. to ship goods to the mainland duty-free, and to hire non-citizen "guest workers" on loan from foreign countries at roughly half the federal minimum wage.
As a result, huge changes have come to the islands. Though the disenfranchised "guest workers" there now outnumber the locals, they have no rights as citizens, they can't vote, and they are routinely misled, cheated, exploited, ripped off, and abused. They pay recruitment agencies thousands of dollars for the opportunity to come to "America." Their debts back home combine with government control of their workplaces to make them meek and easily bossed around. On paper they earn the C.N.M.I. minimum wage of $3.05 an hour, but in reality they often work without pay--and because they have no power, there's not much they can do about it. If they complain, they face being fired and deported back home to face loan shark debts and harassment from government officials.
It is true that economic growth in the C.N.M.I. has been intense. The largest of the islands, Saipan, has developed into an epicenter for foreign-owned garment companies which shipped nearly a billion dollars worth of wholesale goods to U.S. clothing retailers last year. Practically all of the garment companies in Saipan are foreign-owned; several are basically owned by the Chinese government. Although these companies are foreign-owned, foreign-staffed, and utilize foreign raw materials, they pay no tariffs and have no quotas. The U.S. Department of the Interior estimates that the Saipan garment industry avoids $200 million a year in federal taxes.
The standard of living in the C.N.M.I. has tripled over the last two decades--but only for a minority of the residents: primarily the indigenous Chamorro people, who are citizens of the islands. The tension between locals and foreigners is bad and getting worse, particularly as the Asian economic crisis deepens, and as the political battle to put an end to this situation--which Preston Gates has so effectively defended--becomes increasingly fierce.
President Bill Clinton advocates changing laws in the C.N.M.I. to stop what he has called "labor practices in the islands that are inconsistent with our country's values." Rep. George Miller (D-CA) wrote a report last year that included the story of several Chinese men who asked him if he could help them sell their kidneys to pay off debts to loan sharks.
But lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who once proclaimed, "Our job is to remove [the left] from power permanently," heralds the C.N.M.I. economic system as a free-market success story. This view has been well-received by most of the nearly 100 "Congressional visitors" that Abramoff and Preston Gates have flown to the islands and put up at the beachfront Hyatt Regency, for fact-finding tours notoriously light on investigation and heavy on golf.
It was a little over a year ago when House Republican Whip Tom DeLay, at a New Year's Eve dinner thrown in his honor, told a group of Saipan business leaders: "You are the shining light for what is happening in the Republican party, and you represent everything that is good in America in leading the world to a free-market system."
"HE WAS DYING AND HE WAS WORRIED THAT HE OWED MONEY"
Mohammed Kamal Hossain came to Saipan from a village of 1,500 people in Bangladesh. No one he knew in his homeland owned a car. He paid $6,000 for the opportunity to work for U.S. wages because he wanted to build a strong future and good dowries for his four daughters.
To raise $6,000 in rural Bangladesh is no small task. Even after selling his land and a small store that he ran, Hossain still had to borrow $2,000. He went through a recruiting agency in Bangladesh that offered him a one-year contract as a security guard, eight hours a day at $3.25 an hour. The C.N.M.I. Department of Commerce approved the contract, and Hossain was allowed into Saipan legally. But he never got the job he was promised. Instead he moved from one odd job to the next, finding maybe five or six days of work in a typical month, garden work or cleaning jobs paying $15 to $20 a day. He worked one job for two months without being paid.
It was the same for many of the Bangladeshis Hossain met in Saipan. He estimates that of the 2,000 or so Bangladeshis there, only about 20 percent end up working the jobs promised in their contracts.
In June 1997 Hossain filed a complaint with the C.N.M.I. Department of Labor. Nothing happened.
Hossain says he was treated poorly in Saipan. He lived in a shack "like what cows live in." Sometimes the locals would sic their dogs on him and his friends; other times they would pelt them with stones.
Last year, at the age of 36, Hossain suffered a heart attack. The hospital charged him $500 for his first visit. He didn't have the money, and the company he had signed the contract with wouldn't cover him. When he went back to the hospital a second time, the staff wouldn't admit him.
Fortunately, a U.S. attorney found Hossain in Saipan and hooked him up with Phil Kaplan, a Seattle activist who was working for the Catholic Church in Saipan. Kaplan was able to convince U.S. immigration officials to allow Hossain into the U.S. for medical treatment.
Hossain was cared for by Dr. Milton English, a cardiologist at Providence Hospital, and he lived for two months with Rizwan Samad, a Seattle businessman who elected to sponsor him. Samad took pity on Hossain. "He was dying, and he was worried that he owed money," says Samad. "The first night he got in touch with his family in Bangladesh he was on the phone all night. It's unbelievable what he went through over there. It's like slavery."
"THIS IS AMERICA?"
Mohammed Zulfiqar paces around his tiny unfurnished apartment near 21st and Yesler. "I cannot get back to my country," he says. "Once a week they go to my family in Pakistan. They are powerful people, bad people."
Like Sui and Hossain, Zulfiqar has been living in Seattle since he testified at last year's Senate hearing. He earns eight dollars an hour building furniture, and studies English at Seattle Central.
Zulfiqar is also seeking political asylum. When a Washington Post news article about the C.N.M.I. with a photograph of him reached Pakistan last spring, the owners of the agency that had sent him to Saipan were not pleased. Now Zulfiqar's family is angry with him; his fiancée is thousands of miles away; and he's too strapped just keeping his head above water in Seattle's booming economy to change things.
Zulfiqar was 21 years old when he paid $5,000--an enormous sum in Pakistan--for the opportunity to work in Saipan as a carpenter. His first hint that things were not right came when he saw that the agency had altered his birth date on his passport to make him seem older. He got on the plane anyhow and flew from Pakistan to Hong Kong, to Korea, and finally to Saipan. "I got off the airplane and said, 'This is America?'"
Zulfiqar's job was making concrete blocks for $2.75 an hour. He worked with a Chamorro (a C.N.M.I. native) who was an ex-con who had to return to jail each night after work. The boss was a Korean man who drank a lot. One day the boss punched him and knocked him off a stack of concrete blocks three feet high. Zulfiqar was afraid he had hurt his back. Blood was pouring down his arm. His boss told him, Go ahead, call the police--I pay them off, they will do nothing to me.
Zulfiqar called the police and they did nothing. He ended up losing his job. He had only paid off $3,000 of the $5,000 the recruitment agency had charged to send him to Saipan. He didn't know what to do next.
"Each night I would ask myself, Why did I come to this place? Nobody follows the law. They don't know what law is, they don't know what is humanity. People get treated like animals.
"When I left my country I had a lot of future. When I landed in Saipan, I broke my future."
"PEOPLE WERE HIDING IN CAVES BEHIND OUR HOUSE"
Wendy Doromal has been trying to do something about the plight of guest workers in the C.N.M.I. for 15 years.
Doromal first went to the small island of Rota in 1984, when maybe 20 foreigners worked on the island. She watched the numbers explode to the point where, in 1993, the foreign guest workers outnumbered the locals. "It was crazy," she says. "You're on this tiny island where everybody knows everybody. Somebody gets a Filipino maid, so everybody wants a Filipino maid. Pretty soon people on food stamps had maids."
Doromal went to Rota as a school teacher. She didn't intend to get involved politically. She married a Filipino guest worker, a musician who speaks nine languages but was treated like a servant. In the beginning she heard mostly from maids, who were either not being paid for their work, or being treated as slaves; in some cases they were being raped and even forced into prostitution.
"I very naively tried to work with the C.N.M.I. government," recalls Doromal. She quickly came to the conclusion that the government was hopelessly corrupt, and in many cases complicit. When the maids complained to the local government about their employers, they were routinely put on planes and sent home without pay.
Doromal set up an unauthorized refugee camp at her home on Rota. "It became overwhelming," she says. "We had so many people that we couldn't feed them all. People were hiding in caves behind our house."
Last year Doromal led a team from the Department of the Interior on an investigation of human rights abuses in the C.N.M.I. She interviewed 400 workers and shot eight hours of video. She notes that the Republicans who are so quick to praise the success of the island's economy know nothing of the lives of the workers there, because they are too busy being wined and dined by Preston Gates and garment company executives to learn what the average guest worker goes through. "How can you go there and not meet the workers?" she asks. "It's like someone's dying in the corner and you go in the other room and have a party, and then later when someone asks you about it you say it was a nice party. You don't even mention the person dying in the corner. And you're the doctor."
Doromal's frustration shows when she speaks of the politics that have held back reform in the C.N.M.I., in particular the crafty lobbying of Preston Gates. "I think that firm is pure evil," she says. "I don't see how a good person could support a situation like this and then lie about it."
When Phil Kaplan talks about the economic system in the C.N.M.I., he tends to get so angry he can't make it through a sentence describing one outrage without being reminded of another. "The understanding in Saipan is, if you're an employer, you can do whatever the hell you want and get away with it," he says. "It's a systemic rot."
Kaplan worked for the Catholic Church in the C.N.M.I. for two and a half years. He figures he worked with about 1,200 guest workers in all during his time there, and the vast majority of them left the islands worse off than they arrived, having been victimized and abused.
Kaplan doesn't deny that some workers do benefit financially from their stay on the islands, assuming they don't get ripped off or become uppity and get deported. "But I've seen too many rape cases to go for that [argument]," he says. "Rape has nothing to do with sex. It's all about power."
Kaplan points out that the Chamorro people, who are indigenous to the C.N.M.I., were colonized for many years, lorded over by a variety of outsiders. Given the opportunity and the perfect economic system to turn the tables and ascend from the role of slave to master, they have done the predictable. "They have this feeling of omnipotence, like they can't be touched. They have embraced a system that breeds cynicism and degeneracy. They're just lording over people. It's a real slave-owner's mentality."
In Kaplan's opinion, the guest worker system in the C.N.M.I. should be terminated immediately. "We shouldn't allow it. It's corrupting. It teaches people to fuck with each other. That's what Preston Gates bought into when they took that contract."
THE NORDY CONNECTION
"We are committed to selling products that are made legally, ethically and morally.... We will hold our suppliers accountable if they fail to uphold worker rights. Our employees expect it, our customers demand it, and our reputations depend on it."--From a Statement of Principles signed by a number of clothing retailers, including Nordstrom, on November 9, 1995.
The lead firm behind the three law suits filed in January is Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, the New York firm that forced Swiss banks with Nazi ties to pay $1.2 billion to Holocaust survivors and their families.
The door to sweatshop litigation swung open last summer, when a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that an apparel maker may be held responsible for a contractor's failure to pay overtime to employees. In other words, ignorance is no excuse.
The suits allege that retail companies who purchase from the Saipan factories (like Seattle's Cutter and Buck) are either aware of these conditions, or negligently disregard them.
Among the conditions cited:
· "exorbitant recruitment fees" like those paid by Hossain and Zulfiqar;
· "vermin- and insect-infested barracks" with six to eight workers to a room, little access to water, and "barely operable toilets";
· over 1,000 Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) violations since 1993;
· "severe malnutrition";
· purposely inaccurate time clocks;
· "illegal and excessive deductions";
· work without pay; and
· unpaid overtime.One plaintiff is identified only as Jane Doe IV, a citizen of China and an employee of Global Manufacturing, Inc. (GMI). According to legal documents, when Doe IV arrived at the factory from China, "her passport was confiscated and she was threatened with deportation if she did not meet her quotas or if she complained about working or living conditions." She lived "in a filthy, insect-infested barrack with seven other women in a 36-square-meter room [equivalent to about six by seven feet] and shared a bathroom with no running water for the toilets or showers." When she fell behind on her quota, Doe IV was threatened with deportation. She asked to return to China. The recruiter who had arranged her contract visited her family in China and demanded that they make her meet her quota, or risk being fined.
Another GMI worker, Jane Doe V, testified that she personally saw a posted company warning stating that any worker who became pregnant would immediately be sent home to China.
GMI is owned by Willie Tan, who owns much of Saipan, including the newspaper, the bank, and, according to some knowledgeable sources, the local government. Tan also holds the dubious distinction of having paid the largest fine ever imposed by the U.S. Department of Labor: $9 million, to 1,200 underpaid workers.
The U.S. apparel company that contracts with GMI, and which the class action suit holds responsible for the treatment of Jane Does IV and V, is Nordstrom. Brooke White of Nordstrom says the company makes both announced and unannounced visits to the factories it contracts with, checking the working conditions, the age and number of workers, the condition of the living areas and the factory, and the safety of both.
White chose not to comment on whether the company was aware of Willie Tan's record before contracting with his company. Because of ongoing litigation, she did not respond to the suits' charges that GMI workers are threatened with deportation, bankruptcy, and disgrace if they do not make their quotas, complain, or become pregnant.
"YOU HAVE TO CONSIDER THE LIVING STANDARDS IN THESE COUNTRIES"
Another plaintiff, Jane Doe III, an employee of Diorva Saipan, testified that she was housed in "a filthy barrack with seven other women in a 30-square-meter room [six foot square]... with only one functioning toilet for the entire building." Doe III complained of a lack of drinking water both in the factory and in the barracks, and of sexual harassment from her supervisors. Like Does IV and V, Doe III was threatened with deportation and bankruptcy if she didn't meet her quotas or if she complained.
According to legal documents, Diorva workers are "routinely denied pay for their standard eight-hour days, denied pay for overtime, and required to provide large amounts of 'voluntary time' to the companies."
Diorva Saipan Ltd., a subsidiary of one of the largest garment companies in Hong Kong, contracts with Cutter and Buck, a clothing retailer headquartered at 2701 First Avenue in Seattle.
Martin Marks, the president of Cutter and Buck, says of the suits, "We were blindsided by this and we're really mad about it. Nothing could be further from the way in which we operate.... Respect for people is our first and most sensitive issue."
Marks says his company has more than 30 factories world-wide, one of which is in Saipan. "We can't be absolutely certain what happens in a factory 365 days a year," he says. "We deal in good faith with management.... You don't know how each worker is treated on an individual basis."
Marks doesn't deny that the barracks are not the greatest living conditions, but he insists, "You have to consider the living standards in these countries."
Throughout our interview, Marks consistently speaks of the commonwealth as though it were a foreign country.
$292.65 PER HOUR
Bruce Sui, Mohammed Zulfiqar, and Mohammed Hossain are actually lucky in some respects. Life is not easy for them in Seattle, but at least they aren't in the C.N.M.I. anymore.
All three agree that the situation there is getting worse. People are being smuggled from Saipan to Guam, five hours by boat, paying $6,000 to become illegal immigrants. Prostitution is booming, sexually transmitted diseases are rampant, the Centers for Disease Control report epidemic levels of tuberculosis. The economy is in shambles. The local government is thinking of laying off teachers, but recently set a record for the fastest piece of legislation ever turned to law on the islands: a fee increase designed specifically to pay off debts to Preston Gates & Ellis.
No firm better symbolizes our city's feel-good corporate liberalism than Preston Gates & Ellis, its can-do pioneer gumption (Preston), its belief in the power of technology (Gates), its public/private teamwork (Ellis). Think of a huge and costly project in Seattle, and chances are Preston Gates was on the inside--whether it was the new Mariners stadium, the RTA light-rail plan, the failed attempt to build a Seattle Commons, or the successful conversion of Pacific Medical Center into headquarters for Amazon.com.
Before the Reagan years, the firm's D.C. office didn't have a Republican on staff. Since then the balance has shifted dramatically, to the point where the D.C. office spends more money supporting Republicans than Democrats. On the far right end of the spectrum, Preston Gates has ensured direct access for its clients by hiring straight from the staffs of Republican powerhouses like Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush.
Between March 24 and April 30 of last year, when Preston Gates was working full speed to kill reform legislation, the firm billed the C.N.M.I. for 445.8 hours at the rate of $292.65 per hour.
It was during this period that Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times wrote a series of investigative reports detailing the lobbying strategies of Preston Gates & Ellis, Abramoff's political leanings, and the many allegations of mistreatment of guest workers in the C.N.M.I. But the critical coverage in the Times ended abruptly on April 28, when Preston Gates managing partner David Tang and chairman Richard Ford co-authored an opinion piece that made the following arguments:
· low labor costs and guest workers have fueled economic growth, tripling the standard of living;
· since achieving independence, the C.N.M.I. has "created a significant two-party democracy";
· "guest workers come voluntarily for the opportunity to make 15 times more money than in their home countries";
· "the best way to eliminate problems is through cooperation and coordination between local and federal enforcement agencies"; and
· "the U.S. government has come up short on proof of sweeping abuses and forced abortions."
Each of these points is easily refuted:
· The economy in the C.N.M.I. is collapsing. Besides, slavery is good for the economy too;
· as Wendy Doromal points out, "There is nothing democratic about a two-tiered society where the majority of the people are exploited and have no political voice";
· guest workers do come voluntarily, but as Allen Stayman, the director of the Interior Department's Office of Internal Affairs, notes, "They come within a system in which every worker arrives deeply in debt to the factory's own middleman allies... in most cases they are seriously misled, conned, really";
· hoping to solve the problems in the C.N.M.I. with increased federal enforcement is a naive solution at best, because the problem is systemic. As long as the laws defended by Preston Gates remain, the problem will continue;
· and if you really believe the government has come up short with proof, have a look at the documents filed for the three law suits.In their Seattle Times opinion piece, Tang and Ford close their arguments with a classic lawyer's defense: "We do not represent clients based on the popularity of their cause. Our job is to provide professional advocacy. This is one of the roles of lawyers in our society."
"Bullshit," says Kaplan. "Utter bullshit." Kaplan worked as an unpaid lobbyist in Olympia for 17 years before he traveled to Saipan. He knows the difference between constitutionally guaranteed legal representation and a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign.
"You lobby, you bear the sins of your client."