Paradise Lost

by Rebecca Clarren

That expensive blouse you’re wearing? It may have been sewn by a Filipina garment worker laboring in a factory owned by a Hong Kong mogul on a western Pacific island. The Northern Mariana Islands, a territory of the United States, offers the possibility of an American label — Made in Saipan (USA), Made in Northern Mariana Islands (USA), or simply Made in USA — to garment manufacturers, and throws in a unique exemption from U.S. minimum-wage and immigration laws.

Anti-sweatshop leaders and some members of Congress have long sought to increase wages and protect the islands’ garment workers, most of whom are women, from what amounts to indentured servitude. But their efforts were repeatedly stalled in Congress. And who was among the biggest opponents of reform? None other than the notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose tentacles reached deep into House Republican leadership. And who was one of the loudest congressional cheerleaders against reform? Tom DeLay, who praised the islands as “a petri dish of capitalism.”

In the midst of what could be the largest congressional scandal in history, Ms. sent an investigative team to the Northern Marianas to examine firsthand the consequences of these lobbying efforts and congressional inaction on real women’s lives. Plus, we wanted to track down reports of forced abortions on the islands. Could it be that virulent opponents of abortion, such as DeLay, were contributing to conditions where desperate pregnant workers had no choice but to have an abortion? Here is our report.

For more on this exclusive Ms. investigative article, pick up Ms. magazine on a newsstand.