Carmencita "Chie" Abad will discuss the horrible working conditions she endured in the U.S. territory of Saipan while making clothing for the Gap. In her struggle to unionize workers, she was forced to leave the island and is now working to educate Americans about inhumane factory conditions occurring worldwide, including on U.S. soil. Chie will tell her audience what they can do to help eliminate sweatshop abuses occurring worldwide.
In countries around the world, millions of people, mostly women, toil in sweatshops to make the clothes on our backs. These women work dozens of hours per week, enduring verbal and sometimes physical and sexual abuse to make the shirts and shoes that end up on retailers' shelves. They earn only poverty wages, and their efforts to improve their situation are often met with repression. At the beginning of the 21st century, our clothing is made in nearly the same conditions as in the 19th century.
Carmencita (Chie) Abad knows first-hand what it is like to work in a sweatshop. Chie spent six years as a garment worker on the Pacific island of Saipan, in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. During that time, she endured wretched working conditions, frequently working 14-hour shifts in dangerous conditions in order to meet arbitrary production quotas. Chie worked for the Sako Corporation, which made clothes for the Gap, among other major US retailers.
After suffering the island's intolerable living and working conditions for years, Chie attempted to organize Saipan's first garment worker union. When the factory management learned of her organizing efforts, managers began an intense campaign against the formation of a union. They threatened employees that they would shut down the plant and, in general, intimidated workers, frightening them from supporting the union. The eventual union-certifying election was lost by only five votes.
Because of her attempts to organize employees at the factory, Sako management retaliated by refusing to renew Chie's year-long work contract for the first time. To prevent the loss of her job, Chie took her case to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC was then able to obtain a preliminary injunction in federal court in October 1998 that prohibited Sako from firing Chie while the commission investigated the retaliation charge. Outraged by the treatment she had received, in January 1999 Chie chose to come to the US to expose the harsh reality of Saipan to the American people.
During the last four years, Chie has served as a tireless advocate for the workers in Saipan and other sweatshop seamstresses around the world. Her passionate advocacy on behalf of garment workers has not been in vain: In September 2002, 26 major retailers settled a class action lawsuit targeting working conditions in Saipan. The landmark settlement provides back wages to workers and creates a monitoring system to prevent further abuse.
As Chie's experience shows, when people stand up for their rights, they can win.