Behind the Labels exposes the harsh conditions of the garment industry in Saipan, a U.S. territory in the Northern Mariana Islands of the Pacific. Although the island flies the American flag, it is not subject to U.S. immigration laws, and in 1976 was exempted from federal minimum wage regulations to attract business to the island.
Chinese and Filipino women, attracted by the idea of working in "America," pay high recruitment fees to attain contracts to work in Saipan. The result is years of debt. Fees are sometimes as much as $2,000, while women only earn about $350 a year after room, board and fees are subtracted.
Through hidden camera footage and interviews with the women working in the factories, the reality of working on the island is revealed: undocumented hours, harsh quotas, 16 hour work days six days a week, lockdowns, and squalid living conditions. As one of the women states, "I can't get my hands on the money I make here, and I have no faith that I ever will." Many of the women are the only breadwinners for the families they leave behind in poor villages and have no choice but to accept these conditions. They have few outlets for complaints, as they fear retribution from their supervisors.
Carmencita "Chie" Abad, a factory worker and labor activist, was threatened and offered bribes to desist when she tried to unionize workers on the island. Today she lectures on the effect of the global markets on laborers and rallies against companies that sustain exploitative labor practices.
In 1999 sweatshop workers filed the first-ever class action lawsuit against the garment industry for violation of laws prohibiting debt bondage and indentured servitude. Among the defendants were J. Crew, Gap Inc. (which owns Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic), J.C Penney, The Limited, and Polo. In April of 2003, a U.S. district judge approved a $20 million settlement of the lawsuit. For information on the monitoring and status of the litigation, visit www.sweatshopwatch.org. Film is suitable for high school audiences.