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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (February 3, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---In a quick response to a call for reforms from a leading U.S. apparel firm, Liz Claiborne, the CNMI Legislature is eyeing the creation of an independent monitoring group that will help put in place a code of conduct for the local garment sector and clamp down on erring factories.

Senate President Paul A. Manglona is set to file a bill, called the CNMI Independent Garment Factories Monitoring Foundation Act of 1999, setting out the mechanism for the proposed watchdog for local garment manufacturers to safeguard their workers and ensure compliance with labor laws.

Describing the measure as critical, Manglona said lawmakers will consult with various government agencies as well as the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association before tackling the proposal on the floor. The move followed a meeting last Monday between members of the House of Representatives and the Senate and Paul R. Charron, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the New Jersey-based company, in which they discussed issues affecting the global clothing trade, including human rights.

The top Liz Claiborne official prodded local legislators to adopt the independent monitoring scheme implemented in other countries in a bid to police garment manufacturers and help improve working and living conditions for their employees.

Members of the CNMI Legislature appeared favorable to the proposal, which came on the heels of lawsuits recently filed against Saipan garment firms, their U.S. buyers and retailers, alleging "sweatshop conditions" in factories on the island. According to Manglona, setting up an independent group to monitor the industry will help disprove these accusations and change its negative image painted in most mainland media.

"This legislation is very critical," he said in an interview yesterday, "and we are supporting this so that we will have an independent monitoring system to look after the garment industry."

At least six large manufacturing firms have agreed in principle to the plan when they met over the weekend with Charron and other executives of Liz Claiborne. The company sources 10 percent of their 100 million dollar annual stock from local suppliers. Saipan’s garment business, whose gross income topped some $1 billion last year, has drawn steady revenues for the CNMI government in recent months in the wake of the prolonged recession in Asia, its main tourism market.

Charron underscored the need to monitor the local industry in view of growing scrutiny that may affect the future of the business and eventually the island economy. Under Manglona’s proposal, the watchdog will be comprised of seven members, four of whom will be sectoral representatives -- two from SGMA and two factory workers who are elected by their peers. Three members will come from non-governmental organizations such as Karidat, the Red Cross, and other volunteers’ group, who will be chosen through elections conducted by the public auditor.

They will be tasked to establish a code of conduct, undertake unannounced spot checks at each garment factory and employee quarters, as well as to give advice to owners on how to correct problems and to impose fines and penalties against violators. They will also be authorized to recommend closure of a business upon finding a pattern of abuse, according to a draft of the bill.

The purpose of the Foundation shall be to "work in cooperation with garment factories and workers to improve the working and employee living conditions within the garment factory industry," it said.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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