Saipan's garment factories

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The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from the Pacific island of Saipan. It used to host factories that churned out clothes for American consumers. Now the island's economy has collapsed.

DAVID BARON: I'm David Baron and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. A little piece of the United States sits in the Pacific, three thousand miles west of Hawaii. For years, the island of Saipan churned out name brand clothes for U.S. manufacturers, but it did it with cheap foreign labor, Chinese and Filipino workers who earned a fraction of the U.S. minimum wage. Then Saipan's economy collapsed. Its garment factories closed and so did the loophole that allowed them to prosper. Recently the U.S. government took over Saipan's immigration to the dismay of Saipan's government. The World's Mary Kay Magistad has the story.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Former garment factory worker, Wang Chun Yu, remembers what it was like when she first came to Saipan from China a decade ago, got her first factory job and took her place in the factory dormitory.

WANG CHUN YU: It's really hard to work there, really hard to work. Eight people live in one room, only has one fan and night time when you sleep, rats can run on your body.

MAGISTAD: Wang writes about her experience working in Saipan's factories in the book ?Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin,? a Chinese phrase that means ?worthless.? At the peak of Saipan's garment industry boom, there were 35 factories and as many as 40,000 foreign workers, more than the resident population of Saipan. The system of bringing in cheap foreign labor with limited rights was robustly supported by Saipan's government. It even hired American Jack Abramoff to lobby in Washington to make sure Congress didn't force Saipan to follow U.S. standards. But then Abramoff went to prison and in 2008, Congress voted for the federal government to take over Saipan's immigration and border security. That took effect 3 months ago. Marie Siebrechts, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services, says the decision was not only about labor rights.

MARIE SIEBRECHTS: Really what Congress was aiming for was because of the security concerns that we just have in the world right now, they felt that it was the right time to kind of ensure that there would be uniform adherence to immigration policies in the United States.

MAGISTAD: Especially so since the U.S. military is planning to expand its presence on nearby Guam over the next five years. Another U.S. official told me there have been concerns that the Chinese government would try to infiltrate in intelligence agents posing as workers. Just in the few weeks since the U.S. government has taken over border control, dozens of Chinese have been caught trying to sneak into Guam by boat from the Northern Mariana Islands, of which Saipan is the largest. There were other types of types of security concerns with the old system too, says longtime Saipan resident and historian, Sam McPhetres.

SAM McPHETRES: Nobody had to have visas and this is what made the federal government very, very nervous because you could have somebody from Abu Sayef come in here and we have had one, and it wouldn't be hard for them to be turned into a suicide bomber because there's all kinds of World War II ammunition all over the island. Take the power out of them and make a bomb.

MAGISTAD: For this reason and others, many Saipan natives welcome the fact that the U.S. government will now control immigration. Many foreign workers already on Saipan like Wang Chun Yu, hope it will also bring something for them.

YU: Maybe I can get something from it like green card because I'm working on Saipan ten years.

MAGISTAD: A provision along those lines had been in the works but the Saipan government and the chamber of commerce successfully lobbied against it. The U.S. government is now thinking of making new immigration categories that would allow many foreign workers already in Saipan to continue to work here, without having the right to work elsewhere in the United States. Tina Sablan who at 28 just completed a term as Saipan's youngest legislator, thinks those workers deserve better.

TINA SABLAN: If businesses want to be able to hire workers that they can keep, then they should also support granting permanent status to those workers so that they can stay. It's totally undemocratic to say we want you to be able to stay here indefinitely but we don't want you to be able to vote, ever. Give them a pathway so that they can participate in your community as full residents and citizens.

MAGISTAD: Neither the U.S. nor local governments support that, but then the local governor also doesn't agree with the U.S. government taking control of immigration. He says it's an infringement of local autonomy. Others are also unhappy with the new immigration set-up. Jim Aranovski, the Vice President of Saipan's chamber of commerce, says it comes down to practical concerns.

JIM ARANOVSKI: The business community's not against federalization. We're against the fact that we're going to lose a good chunk of our workforce and some businesses are going to really suffer for that and it's just not the way to go.

MAGISTAD: Already since the garment factors all shut down in recent years after the United States got rid of its textile quota system, Saipan's economy has tanked. Foreign workers left, Saipan's population has shrunk 25% in the past five years, to less than 50,000 now. Different people have different ideas about how to turn this all around. Jim Aranovski thinks they should clean up the island and build up Saipan's tourism industry, especially for Chinese and Russian tourists. He says foreign workers are needed for the tourism industry and he worries that many will be forced to leave after the five year transition period to new federal immigration controls.

ARANOVSKI: We maybe have about 700 foreign investors here. There's a very good chance that 80% of them will disappear in five years. No one seems to really care, we're just, you know, a population of 50,000 people. It's like a mining town somewhere. Oh, the mining closes down so a whole bunch of people are out of work, tough. They don't understand. Those folks go like, travel 30 miles down the road, get a new job. We can't.

MAGISTAD: That doesn't bother Leno Olepai, a native islander. He says he grew up in a very different Saipan, a quieter and friendlier Saipan and looking around at the Chinese hookers in micro-minis, the abandoned garment factories, the casinos and endless poker parlors, he says we don't need more of this stuff.

LENO OLEPAI: Robbery during the day. People have been attacked with machetes. Bank robbery. It was unheard of when I was growing up. We lost that community spirit on our island, the way we developed. We choose to be part of the United States but we're not an industrial society. We are islanders.

MAGISTAD: Olepai says Saipan shouldn't aspire to be Manhattan or Singapore, which are islands of roughly the same size. He wants Saipan to draw tourists with its beauty, its history, its traditional culture but he also wants Saipanese to learn the new skills they need for a modern workforce and to use foreign workers only as a last resort. He's in a minority in his views. Saipan is now a modern place with modern tastes but Olepai says both modern and traditional culture can resist her, just in a better balance. That, he says, is what will draw tourists. Saipan is still struggling to catch new wind in its economic sails. He just may be onto something. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Saipan.