THE BLOG
02/14/2007 12:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Law, Slaves and Jack Abramoff

It's a new Congress and a new day. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff is now Inmate No. 227593-112. Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay is facing criminal charges in Texas. California's Congressman Richard Pombo lost his seat to a windpower man. The forces of evil have been driven from Washington DC. God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.

Well, not quite. And not yet at least in Saipan, a small island in the West Pacific, part of the U.S. Commonwealth for the Mariana Islands ("CNMI"). For decades this very Abramoff-Delay-Pombo trio helped maintain a system of bonded labor in sweatshops generating billions of dollars in sales of "Made in the U.S.A.," clothing. Tens of thousands of indentured workers, primarily women from mainland China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, worked six or seven day weeks in sweatshop conditions.

These "guest workers," according to a 1998 report for the U.S. Department of Interior, "were victims of fraudulent recruitment practices, substandard living conditions, health problems and unprovoked acts of violence". They were paid barely half the U.S. minimum wage and, because U.S. immigration laws do not apply, could be deported on a whim. "Shadow contracts" waived most basic human rights such as to join a union, marry or get pregnant.

For some fifteen years, California's Congressman George Miller fought an often lonely battle to clean up the Islands and extend the minimum wage. Several years ago, even the Republican controlled U.S. Senate agreed, passing an amendment by Senator Frank Murkowski (of a zero AFL CIO rating) to apply U.S. labor laws to Saipan. Yet this legislation was blocked in the House for which Jack Abramoff was paid more than a million dollars, first by the local CNMI government, and then by factory owners. On one visit, then Majority Leader Delay described the Saipan sweatshops as "a shining light . . . you represent everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America. . . ." Later, he would tell The Washington Post that conditions in Saipan constituted "a perfect Petri dish of capitalism. It is like my Galapagos Island." You can't make this stuff up.

The settlement of a class action lawsuit, Doe vs. The Gap, eliminated the most outrageous of the human rights violations on Saipan. And the Abramoff cabal is gone now. This month, the U.S. Senate followed the House of Representatives passing a minimum wage bill that for the first time will be phased in the Mariana Islands. Final passage, however, awaits agreement by a Conference Committee and the signature of President Bush. Yet this may be too little too late. As trade with China opens, the Saipan factories are closing.

There are other "Saipans" throughout the world. As the American industrial base continues to erode, (over the past decade, some 200,000 U.S. textile jobs disappeared) more and more consumer goods are manufactured by foreign labor, often under conditions of slavery, indentured servitude and child labor. In a very real sense, our cheap prices and high quality of life are the result of globalized exploitation. Because while we export our jobs, our values stay at home.

Many of our consumer products come from the sweat and toil of some 250 million child laborers worldwide. Some were sold into slavery, others trafficked around the world. They assemble computers and mine gold, harvest food and make clothing, cut lumber and man fishing boats, produce silk and weave rugs. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits this, of course, ratified by 192 nations, all but Somalia and the United States. It is honored in the breach. The increasing globalized demand for cheap, readily available goods is creating an increasing globalized demand for cheap, readily available children.

And it's not just children. There are today at least 27 million slaves held by violence, against their will for the purpose of exploitation. That is five times the total legally enslaved in the U.S. from 1619 until 1865. Modern day slavery takes many forms: physical abduction, serfdom and prison slavery; at least 4 million slaves are traded annually. "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all forms." So says The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In theory, it is illegal for goods made by slaves to enter the U.S. Yet, slaves make our toys and our chocolate bars.

In Saipan, a team of plaintiffs' class action lawyers invoked a very old law, the Alien Tort Claims Act. The first legislative act of the new Republic, it prevents "crimes against all mankind," opening U.S. courts to aliens seeking relief "for acts committed in violation of the law of nations." Dormant for 200 years, the Act was first used in the 1980's against governments (for crimes like murder and torture) and more recently against trans-national corporations - such as in the Saipan sweatshop litigation. Many Alien Tort cases have not fared well however, dismissed on sovereign immunity or procedural grounds. And a recent Supreme Court decision appears to limit the Act to the most heinous human rights violations.

In the best of times, only so much can be accomplished for human rights through litigation. The courts are slow, evidence irretrievable, assets unavailable.

So here's another idea: let the market work, a fully and accurately informed market. A "right to know" approach already has been successfully used to improve environmental protection. California mandates labels for substances that cause cancer or birth defects. The Clean Air Act warns local residents about toxic air pollutants. "Green seals" are turning up on various consumer goods. If we can warn about the chemical in your nail polish, tell what's in your air, inform that your desk chair came from a rainforest, if we can make tuna "dolphin free," then why can't we tell consumers about enslaved kids? Polls indicate that, if told, many consumers would simply not buy a product made by slaves.

Who are we to impose our values on the rest of the world? We are the consumers whose insatiable demand is creating these jobs, and these abuses, that's who. That gives the right - and the moral obligation - to act.