Wage gap: Sweatshop workers sue top clothing makers

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February 25, 1999|By Chicago Tribune

Asian women who work in ``America's worst sweatshop'' are suing such big-name clothing makers as Tommy Hilfiger, The Gap, The Limited, J. Crew and Wal-Mart, a lawyer for about 50,000 garment makers announced last month.

The class-action suits accuse 18 U.S. manufacturers of selling garments made by workers who are mistreated by foreign subcontractors in the Pacific island of Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth. The lawsuits are the first to try to use U.S. racketeering laws to hold retailers accountable for worker conditions and seek about $1 billion in damages.

Because of Saipan's ties to the U.S., the factories - mostly owned by Chinese, Japanese and Korean subcontractors - stamp their clothing with ``Made in the USA'' and are able to sidestep tariffs on imported clothing.

In turn, workers from China and Thailand have been lured to Saipan because ``they were promised the American dream,'' said attorney Al Meyerhoff. Once there, people were allegedly forced to work up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week for subcontractors, which pay below the legal minimum wage of $3.05. Many were forced to live in guarded barracks, Meyerhoff said.

One of those workers, Carmencita Abad, said she traveled to Saipan in 1993 from her native Philippines in search of opportunity. ``I wanted to come to America,'' she said. ``I thought that since Saipan was part of the United States, I would find unlimited opportunities.''

Tommy Hilfiger, J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart said they hire only subcontractors that strictly follow U.S. labor laws.

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