Behind the Labels: Garment Workers on U.S. Saipan

2001, 45 minutes
Producer/Director: Tia Lessin
Executive Producer: Gillian Caldwell
Distributed by Witness

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 Stills 
   
 Essay 
      

Behind the Labels: The Rights of Labor

by Blanca Vázquez

The "Made in the U.S.A." label presumably means that garments are manufactured in accordance with U.S. labor laws, that minimum wage standards are upheld and that work is performed under humane conditions. Behind the Labels examines the lives and working conditions of thousands of Chinese and Filipina women working in U.S.-controlled Saipan. Located in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, Saipan is the only U.S. territory exempt by the U.S. Congress from federal minimum wage and immigration laws. One lawsuit describes the conditions of the women as indentured servitude under the U.S. flag.

Hidden cameras document a global sweatshop, where garments are produced for the nation's top companies, including the GAP, Abercrombie and Fitch, Jones NY, Ralph Lauren Polo, JC Penney, Sears and Liz Claiborn. Unpaid overtime, intolerable work quotas and prison-like conditions are common. Garments produced on the island enter the U.S. duty-free.

In their own words, the women describe paying recruitment fees to work in Saipan, which are deducted from their wages along with room and board. Separated from their children and supporting entire families in rural China or the Philippines, the women are trapped in horrendous conditions and threatened with deportation if they organize or complain.

In a world of haves and have-nots, the right to work is fundamental. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights highlights the right to just and favorable remuneration for work, and a dignified human existence. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically delineates the rights of workers around the world. It champions the right to work for everyone, free choice of employment, just and favorable conditions of work, equal pay for equal work, the right to form and join trade unions and protection against unemployment.

Behind the Labels documents as well the struggle to force the U.S. Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and companies to comply with international and U.S. standards for workers.

 

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