This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript of 20/20's new Saipan exposé. Copies of the video are available from Global Exchange. Call (415) 255-7296 for details. Note: VO signifies voice-over.
The Shame of Saipan
ABC News: 20/20
May 24, 1999
CONNIE CHUNG, ABCNEWS Good evening, and welcome to 20/20 Monday. Charlie and I are happy to have you with us. Tonight, a 20/20 investigation into a shameful violation of human rights on American soil - the US territory of Saipan, an island in the Pacific. In Washington today, human rights activists asked the Attorney General to investigate allegations first raised in an award-winning report by our chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross - allegations that some young Asian women have become virtual indentured servants on the island.
CHARLES GIBSON, ABCNEWS Well, now Brian Ross has gone back to Saipan for a new investigation into charges that things have gotten even worse. This time, he has found evidence that some young women are being lured into Saipan's thriving sex trade and forced into onstage sex acts and prostitution. As you watch our investigation, you may ask yourself, "Could something like this really be happening on American soil?"
BRIAN ROSS, ABCNEWS (VO) These are undercover pictures made by the human rights group Global Survival Network of a business proposition on the American island of Saipan.
ASIAN WOMAN One hour - one hour, $60.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Sixty dollars for an hour of massage with one of the thousands of young women from across Asia who, under a loophole in American immigration law, have been legally brought to work on American soil, Saipan.
STEVE GALSTER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, GLOBAL SURVIVAL NETWORK Most of these women were told that they were coming to work as waitresses in restaurants or nightclubs. Once they got there, they were told that they had to do more than that.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Steve Galster is the executive director of Global Survival Network and the man who wore the hidden camera in Saipan.
STEVE GALSTER We're not talking about prostitution here. We're talking about forced prostitution.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) In fact, this beautiful American island in the middle of the Pacific, where thousands of American soldiers died in World War II, has come to be known by many as a place of broken promises, according to Congressman George Miller.
REP GEORGE MILLER, (D) CALIFORNIA These people are working under the protection of the American flag, and they're being exploited as if they were in the worst Third World country.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) It's part of a system that was set up on Saipan primarily to provide thousands of foreign workers for the island's notorious garment factories. Truckloads of young women from China and the Philippines, who have actually paid thousands of dollars - an entire family's life savings - for what they are told will be good jobs in America.
GEORGE MILLER The minute they get off the plane, they realize they've been tricked, and now they're without any rights.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Put to work under often grueling conditions, the women are not free to change jobs because of the Saipan loophole. It's something that would not be legal on the mainland. But under the same loophole in the law, a growing number of women are being brought into staff Saipan's booming Garapan district, a seedy, sleazy place of nightclubs and karaoke bars, where the customers range from wealthy Japanese businessmen to American sailors to local government officials.
KATRINA (through translator) Once there was a customer that bit my breast. But the boss told us the customer is always right.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Many of the women who work here are only teenagers. Many under age, like Katrina, not her real name, who was 14 when she was recruited from the Philippines.
KATRINA (through translator) It was my first time to dance naked, and I was ashamed.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Katrina told federal investigators that she signed this official Saipan government affidavit, thinking she was going to be a waitress and ended up forced into live sex acts on stage.
KATRINA (through translator) Then he started cursing me and threatened to take off my clothes. So I was afraid, and I took them off instead.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) And federal authorities say even those not forced into sex are still exploited, usually kept in labor barracks, delivered en masse to the club seven nights a week and often required to sign labor contracts that say they could be fired and sent home, doomed to poverty, if they are not obedient or make trouble or fail to respect the owner or his VIP guests.
GOV PEDRO TENORIO I'm not happy about that. I'm not proud of it.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Even the governor of Saipan, Pedro Tenorio, admits what's happening is a huge embarrassment while, at the same time, defending the system used to recruit the women.
PEDRO TENORIO It's legal. I assume it's - no, it's legal for them to work at the club. But not to the extent of, you know, force them to do anything other than what is in the contract.
BRIAN ROSS (on camera) And yet that happens, though, don't you know that?
PEDRO TENORIO I don't know.
BRIAN ROSS You don't know? And no one ever brought that to your attention?
PEDRO TENORIO No.
BRIAN ROSS You've never heard that these women are brought and forced into prostitution?
PEDRO TENORIO I'm aware of that. Yes, I am aware of that.
BRIAN ROSS You are aware of it?
PEDRO TENORIO Yeah, sure.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) And that very night, we saw even more for the governor to be embarrassed about. A man with two young bar girls, who said he was a top police official, became upset when he saw our cameras.
UNIDENTIFED MAN Sir, you want to take a picture or what?
BRIAN ROSS (VO) He said he was conducting his own investigation. And in short order, uniformed officers showed up to stop our taping.
POLICE OFFICER You better turn off that camera right now.
BRIAN ROSS (on camera) Why is that? (VO) When we refused to stop, one officer then threatened to arrest 20/20 producer Rhonda Schwartz, saying she had illegally parked and could be considered a flight risk. (on camera) My question is why are you ignoring the prostitution that is just around the corner here? And why are you stopping our camera crews?
POLICE OFFICER Why are you so concerned about us making arrests on the prostitutes?
BRIAN ROSS Aren't you concerned about the prostitutes?
POLICE OFFICER We are concerned about it, of course.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) And then, one of the nightclub owners showed up, insisting he had a high-class clientele, including important government officials he wanted us to see for ourselves. And sure enough, among the customers, in a black and white shirt, was a man identified to us as the governor's son, the head of the island's tourism office, entertaining a delegation of Japanese government officials. Hiding his head, the governor's son fled the scene, and neither he nor his father have had anything else to say about the matter.
GEORGE MILLER Clearly, you have a situation where business and government have come together and really promoted the exploitation of foreign workers, workers who are brought to Saipan.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) And Congressman Miller says the concern involves not only the nightclubs and sex shops, but also the sweatshops in the much bigger garment industry which, as 20/20 found last year, include many places of blocked fire exits, overheated electrical panels, toilets that don't work - what authorities called flagrant violations of US labor and safety laws. (on camera) Brian Ross from ABCNEWS 20/20. Can we see the manager, please? (VO) And not surprisingly, when we came back this year to follow up, the factories were not very happy to see us. (on camera) May we come in? (VO) One place went so far as to padlock the front door of a factory full of women working well after midnight, then blocked our view and the main exit for the workers and finally turned off the lights. (on camera) So, sir, you've blocked the windows and turned off the lights. All the workers are still inside?
MAN AT FACTORY Yeah.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) And now, the situation here led to a novel legal approach - a $1 billion lawsuit, not just against the factories, but also the American designers and retailers who do business with them.
AL MEYERHOFF, HUMAN RIGHTS ATTORNEY The lawsuit alleges that Saipan is America's biggest sweatshop.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Led by veteran attorney Al Meyerhoff, human rights groups and labor unions have filed suit on behalf of Saipan garment workers, naming some of the biggest names in American fashion.
AL MEYERHOFF It's our position that companies like The Gap and Tommy Hilfiger and Wal-Mart, they have profited in the hundreds of millions of dollars from the Saipan sweatshops.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) In statements to 20/20, The Gap and Wal-Mart say they try to monitor the factories they use on Saipan and won't tolerate sweatshop conditions. But American retailers have long been drawn to Saipan because it is an American territory, where clothes can legally be labeled with some version of "made in the USA," even though almost all of the workers are foreign, working in foreign-owned factories.
AL MEYERHOFF It's a scandal. It's illegal, and it has to be stopped.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) But at the Saipan state house, the newly elected Governor Tenorio, who had promised last year to crack down if he found any sweatshops, dismissed the lawsuit as unnecessary. (on camera) When was the last time that you, as governor, were inside one of these factories or one of these barracks?
PEDRO TENORIO I made a point not to visit them, to be honest.
BRIAN ROSS You make a point not to visit them?
PEDRO TENORIO Not to visit them. But my ...
BRIAN ROSS Why wouldn't you want to see for yourself what's going on inside?
PEDRO TENORIO Because I told them that they have to do what they're supposed to do and meet all the requirements of the law, otherwise the ...
BRIAN ROSS I don't understand that. Why would you make a point of deliberately not looking inside?
PEDRO TENORIO No, I go around, but I don't want to go inside their barracks or anything.
BRIAN ROSS Well, that's where the problems are. I mean, you drive by it?
PEDRO TENORIO Once in a while, yes.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) But even the governor would have had a hard time avoiding the latest outrage in Saipan. More than 1,000 workers made sick by suspected food poisoning at one of the biggest and supposedly best-run factory on the island, owned by the politically prominent Willie Tan. A lawyer for Tan said the factory is well run and no sweatshop and suggested to Saipan TV station KMCV that it might be sabotage somehow connected to the lawsuit.
TAN'S ATTORNEY Sir, we have with this lawsuit and everything else that's been going on, there could be some sabotage.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) But federal officials say Tan's factory has a history of problems, including the contamination of water used for drinking and cooking. And Tan's factory is named in the billion-dollar lawsuit because of the work it does for Tommy Hilfiger and other well-known American retailers.
AL MEYERHOFF The occasions of people becoming ill, workers fainting, food poisoning, drinking water contamination, well-documented. These are sweatshops plain and simple.
BRIAN ROSS (on camera) And you say that Tommy Hilfiger - he's in New York - should know what's going on half a world away.
AL MEYERHOFF The allegation of the complaint is that the Tommy Hilfigers of the world either know or should know that the violations of human rights in Saipan are occurring in the production of their clothing lines.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Hilfiger is one of the hottest names in the American fashion industry. And he made a big splash at this year's fashion week in New York. But when we asked Hilfiger about the clothes he makes on Saipan, he didn't seem to know much about it.
TOMMY HILFIGER, FASHION DESIGNER I think it's absurd that people make clothes in places in the world that are not of US standards.
BRIAN ROSS (on camera) Having said that, are you doing anything about it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN I'm sorry, we have to ...
TOMMY HILFIGER We're doing a lot about it. Absolutely.
BRIAN ROSS Such as?
TOMMY HILFIGER I think you can check with my lawyers. We're doing a lot about it.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Since then, Hilfiger's lawyers have sent 20/20 this statement that no new orders would be given to factories in Saipan for the indefinite future, although current production continues. But it's not just Tommy Hilfiger. The same factory where the workers became ill produces even more clothes for the Polo line of Ralph Lauren, which told 20/20 last year it would investigate conditions but has continued production here. This year, Ralph Lauren, who is president of the company, said he didn't want to talk about the garment factories on Saipan. (on camera) It's your name that's being used.
RALPH LAUREN I think it's used - I'm sure it's being used properly.
BRIAN ROSS You're satisfied with what's happening there?
RALPH LAUREN No. No, I'm not. And I think - I just finished my show. And I'd appreciate having some lunch. Thank you.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) Lauren is not named in the lawsuit. But in a statement later sent to 20/20, his company said it had for several years been taking action to improve worker conditions in Saipan but would not specify what the action was.
GEORGE MILLER Congress could fix this that quickly. All we have to say is that the immigration laws and the labor laws of the United States of America apply to Saipan.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) And yet Congressman Miller says his efforts to do that have been blocked by one of the most powerful people in Congress.
EVENT HOST The Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) The number-three Republican in the House, Tom DeLay.
REP TOM DELAY, MAJORITY WHIP Thank you.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) DeLay and members of his staff took a Christmas holiday trip to Saipan in 1997, toured select garment factories and barracks and then praised the island.
REP TOM DELAY And you represent everything that is good about what we're trying to do in America.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) In fact, when Steve Galster of Global Survival Network went undercover posing as a garment executive, he heard all about Congressman DeLay from the Mr Big of Saipan garment manufacturers - this man, Willie Tan. Tan, who owns the factors where the workers became ill, claims he is close to DeLay and boasted of the assurances he said the congressman had given him that the proposed laws on Saipan would be killed.
WILLIE TAN Because Tom DeLay will never let it go.
STEVE GALSTER You're sure?
WILLIE TAN Sure. Do you know what Tom told me? He said, "Willie, if they elect me Majority Whip, I make the schedule of the Congress, and I'm not going to put it on the schedule." So Tom told me, "Forget it, Willie. No chance."
BRIAN ROSS (VO) A spokesperson for DeLay says it's no secret he opposes the legislation and a lawyer for Tan says Tan was just exaggerating to impress a man he thought was a potential customer. But Congressman Miller says the tape provides a rare insight into the behind-the-scenes fight against reform on Saipan.
GEORGE MILLER It makes me very angry, very angry. You know, that's not what the Congress of the United States is supposed to be about.
BRIAN ROSS (VO) So the bottom line is, despite the promises to investigate and the calls for reform, it seems little has changed on Saipan. And when the sun goes down on this American territory, another shift of foreign workers, brought to this country under the same legal loophole, reports for duty at another kind of thriving grim business.
GEORGE MILLER Makes you ashamed, makes you very ashamed.
CHARLES GIBSON The Justice Department tells 20/20 that it has now begun a broad investigation into the allegations of sexual slavery on Saipan to assert once and for all that American law does apply on the island.