The anti-sweatshop movement scored a major victory in September 2002 when 26 major retailers settled a lawsuit targeting working conditions on the island of Saipan. The settlement capped a bitter, three-year legal struggle between advocates for sweatshop workers and some of the world’s largest apparel companies.
In 1999, Global Exchange, Sweatshop Watch, the Asian Law Caucus, and the garment workers’ union UNITE filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of workers in Saipan, a US commonwealth. Consumer pressure, spearheaded by Global Exchange and Sweatshop Watch, helped convince 19 retailers to settle the lawsuit in 1999 and 2000. But several of the corporations— led by Gap Inc., JC Penney, and Target—refused to settle the suit, preventing a comprehensive resolution to workers’ woes. That resistance finally broke down, paving the way for a full settlement involving the US retailers and 23 local manufacturers, who together will pay $20 million into a fund to pay for back wages and create an independent monitoring system to prevent future abuses.
“This is a significant victory because it pushes the envelope on how far workers and consumers can press retailers to be responsible for the conditions under which their clothes are made,” Nikki Bas, co-director of Sweatshop Watch, told the San Francisco Chronicle the day the settlement was announced.
The settlement will help guarantee that workers in Saipan making clothing for some of the world’s most profitable companies no longer suffer routine abuses. The deal calls for:
- A Code of Conduct. Companies agree to meet basic standards, including paying for overtime and supplying safe food and drinking water.
- Independent Monitoring. The International Labor Organization will conduct announced and unannounced inspections to check out worker complaints.
- Compensation. Some 30,000 former and current garment workers are eligible for $6.4 million in unpaid back wages.
- Repatriation. Workers who want to return to their home countries (most garment workers in Saipan are guest workers from China and the Philippines) will be eligible for up to $3,000 in travel costs. This will help guest workers avoid being placed in indentured servitude, which prevented many of them from standing up for their rights.
Chie Abad, a former sweatshop worker who has spent the last three years tirelessly traveling the US educating people about the abuses in Saipan, was thrilled with the settlement. “For me it’s a great thing that this happened, that the workers will get their human rights,” Abad said. “Finally their voices have been heard.”
There is no question that sweatshop abuses remain a problem in countries around the world. Workers face hazardous working conditions, suffer poverty wages, and experience repression when they try to form unions to protect their rights. The Saipan settlement represents a small yet significant step toward ensuring that the people who make our clothes are treated with dignity.