Sweatshops, made in the good, old U.S. A.

How an official who tried to help exploited workers ran afoul of powerful Republicans.

Published October 29, 2006

If you're one of those independent-minded voters who drifted in recent years to the Republican camp and may be thinking twice about that allegiance come November, there is one more reason to do so: Allen Stayman.

You've probably never heard of Stayman, but indicted former lobbyist and Republican insider Jack Abramoff knew him well. Abramoff and his lobbying team went to great lengths to oust Stayman from his State Department post, even dubbing the expulsion the "Stayman Project." Why? Because years earlier as an official in the Interior Department, Stayman led an effort to help exploited workers toiling in Chinese-owned sweatshops in a U.S. commonwealth.

Since the 1980s, the tiny Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific and particularly the main island of Saipan have attracted numerous Chinese garment manufacturers. The Chinese loved this arrangement because it allowed their clothes to carry the label "Made in the U.S.A.," and shipments from the islands didn't face the import quotas or duties that existed at the time.

Conscientious consumers assumed that the garments were made on the U.S. mainland in conformance with our labor laws. To maintain the ruse and keep workers in penury, the islands' government doled out $7.9-million over six years to Abramoff.

Wendy Doromal, who taught school in the Marianas before becoming a human rights activist, told NPR's Weekend Edition in June that the guest workers, primarily from China, were treated as disposable flotsam. "The barbed wire around the factories face inward so that the mostly women couldn't get out."

Many of the workers were minors who were kept in barracks at night in what was described by our government as "labor camps." The workers were charged by recruiters thousands of dollars for "jobs in the U.S." Then they landed on an island 8,000 miles away. Doromal said the women had quotas that were impossible to reach within a normal workday and they wouldn't be paid for the overtime.

Pam Brown, former federal ombudsman for the Northern Marianas, recently told Moyers On America that workers there were forced to sign contracts agreeing that "if they got pregnant they'd have an abortion."

In the late 1990s, Congress almost put a stop to the worst abuses by forcing the Marianas to adopt U.S. minimum wage and immigration laws. A bill passed the Senate unanimously. But former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whom Abramoff brought to the Marianas over the 1998 New Year, blocked the effort in the House.

DeLay was taped during that trip telling officials and business leaders: "You are a shining light for what is happening in the Republican Party and you represent everything good about what we're trying to do in America, in leading the world in the free market system."

So what about Allen Stayman?

Stayman was opposed by Abramoff due to his work leading the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs. In accordance with a congressional dictate, Stayman tried to negotiate with the Marianas to bring the country into line with American labor and immigration standards. According to Stayman, for Abramoff and DeLay, it was "an inconvenient truth that businessmen were horribly abusing workers." They didn't want to know it and they didn't want it known. The dozens of mostly Republican congressional members and staff flown to the Marianas for golf outings and resort stays were given a quick tour through a model factory.

Newly released e-mails suggest that with the election of George W. Bush, Abramoff saw his opportunity to punish Stayman, who had since moved to the State Department and was no longer dealing with the Marianas. Ken Mehlman, now the chairman of the Republican National Committee but who was then the White House political director, was allegedly intricately involved.

"Mehlman said he would get him fired," read one e-mail from an Abramoff associate. Within months of Bush's inauguration, Stayman was denied renewal of his State Department job even though his supervisors had sought to retain him. Mehlman has said he doesn't remember the case.

A report by the House Government Reform Committee documented more than 400 contacts between the White House and members of Abramoff's lobbying team, many apparently with Mehlman.

And while Abramoff and DeLay are facing legal troubles for their unethical and corrupt dealings, Mehlman is still a Republican power broker.

In the world of today's Republican leadership, if enough money changes hands, then young women being held in a form of indentured servitude, cheated out of pay and forced to live in miserable conditions while the U.S. flag flies outside the factory door is not a problem. It's a model of free market capitalism.

Just something else to consider come November.