This is Part 2 in a 4-Part “Open World” series, a Global Exchange exclusive highlighting individuals (chosen by Global Exchange staff members) who are showcasing the possibility for a different world.

As a young woman living in the island nation of the Philippines, Chie Abad wanted a better life for herself.  The opportunities in her homeland were few, so she paid a recruiter thousands of dollars to provide her with a chance at something different.

She was promised good pay and a way out of poverty.  She was promised a new life.  A future.  Chie left the Philippines for Saipan with high hopes.

What she got was a sweatshop.

Chie Abad

SAKO’s garment factory was far from the dream of a better life Chie had hoped for. The factory, which made garments for companies like the GAP, Levi Strauss, and Anne Taylor, was a noisy, crowded, and dangerous exploitation mill–spitting out cheaply produced clothing which would then be marked up to be sold in American stores for exorbitant sums.

The machine also ground up and spit out people, Chie quickly found.  The work itself was tedious and exhausting. From day one, she was pushed to the uppermost limits of human tolerance and endurance.  Garments moved down a line, and she performed one task, repeatedly, throughout the day.  There was no variation, no chance to see a finished product from start to finish.  Workers were expected to work at a frantic pace, for ten hours or more a day, six or seven days a week.

Inside a Saipan Sweatshop

The day’s end wasn’t much better.  When she finished with the day’s strenuous work, she’d return to her squalid living conditions–thirty women crammed into small rooms, stacked in bunkbeds four high, everyone sharing one tiny, overtaxed bathroom.

In nearly every imaginable way, the value of the workers was disregarded.

Anyone who got pregnant was fired.

Anyone who got hurt was fired.

And anyone who spoke up was fired.

Dissent meant an instant termination.  For workers who had paid $5,000 American dollars to unscrupulous ‘recruiters’, this was a powerful incentive to keep quiet.

Five years.  Five long, taxing, finger numbing, back straining years.  That’s how long Chie lasted in the sweatshops of SAKO.  It’s a testament to her strength that the best attempts of the inhuman SAKO bosses could not break her.

In fact, the cruelty of the system opened Chie’s eyes.

After five years of working in horrible conditions, Chie couldn’t take it anymore—and she thought that no one else should have to either. She attempted to unionize the garment factory where she worked, so that she and her colleagues could finally have a chance to make a decent living, and live decently.

The company where she worked didn’t much like her ideas.  Immediately, they decided to get rid of her, and terminated her employment contract.

Chie considered her options.  Workers like her had few, if any rights.  Employers were free to pay them next to nothing, house them in cramped quarters, terminate them at any time, and to toss them out on the street if they dared raise any objections.  The garment manufacturers had the tacit support of local governments. The multinational corporations buying the goods only cared that the price was low on the goods they bought.  No one, it seemed, cared about the people inside the sweatshops.

Chie knew she was up against incredible odds.  But that didn’t stop her.  She found a lawyer, and decided to fight for her right to a decent livelihood, and for the rights of her coworkers to have access to the same basic rights she wanted for herself.

Chie, as it turned out, is one hell of a fighter.

The court issued an injunction forcing SAKO to give her job back, even before they ruled on the other components of her case.  And after a legal battle, she won back pay for herself and all the other workers.

A battle begun in Saipan continued in San Francisco.  Chie was invited to the United States to join the massive class action lawsuit against retailers who used sweatshops to produce their clothing.  The Asian Law Caucus, Global Exchange, Unite Here, and Sweatshop Watch asked Chie to serve as the spokesperson for the plaintiffs, to be the face of the many people who had chosen to remain anonymous for the court proceedings.

The case brought international shame and condemnation for retailers who used these exploitative practices, and earned $24 million in back pay and lost wages for the garment workers of Saipan.  Companies like the GAP vowed to change their practices.

The fight against sweatshop labor continues to this day.  Working with Global Exchange’s anti-sweatshop program, Chie is taking the issue to the House of Representatives. House Bill 6262 would get the federal government out of the sweatshop business entirely.  The ordinance requires all federal garment purchases to use an independent monitoring agency to insure that any textiles purchased are non-exploitative.

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