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MELBOURNE, Australia (Oct. 3, 2002 – Radio Australia)---After three years, millions of dollars in legal fees and an international campaign by human rights activists, the Pacific's largest sweatshop class-action lawsuit is all but over. The last of the United States' largest clothing retailers have agreed to compensate workers employed by garment factories in Saipan, an island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth.

While none of the retailers have admitted responsibility, the payout is being hailed as a major victory in the fight against unlawful working conditions.

The lawsuit was filed in a San Francisco state court by four American human rights and labor organizations in 1999. They had alleged that some 30,000 mainly Chinese and Filipino workers employed by Saipan clothing manufacturers had endured sweatshop working conditions and had faced ongoing exploitation.

But with seven of the last eight retailers involved in the lawsuit now agreeing to a compensation deal, U.S. human rights lawyer Michael Rubin says the workers' claims have been completely vindicated.

"We're delighted with the outcome," said Rubin, based in San Francisco. "We've been working with the retailers and the factories for several years now to resolve the litigation by a settlement that benefits the workers. And we struck a deal that gets a lot of money to the workers, and more importantly sets up a code of conduct and monitoring program that we can all be very, very proud of. "

U.S. human rights groups claim the code should become a model for all U.S. overseas territories on which American clothing companies have come to rely. However, this response has angered Saipan manufacturers, all of which are independently owned and operate at arm's length from the retailers who buy their products.

The executive director of the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association, Richard Pierce, is defying the terms of the settlement banning him from discussing the issue with the media. He says the push to develop a code of conduct came from manufacturers, not the class action.

"No one forced us into this," Pierce said. He added that the code of conduct for the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association was formulated and developed in mid-1997, and was actually adopted and filed with the attorney general's office here in 1998.

"The class action lawsuit did not come about until 1999," Pierce noted. "So we were well on our way to developing this code."

Pierce says that while the $20-million settlement has been promoted as a victory for workers, the lawsuit is merely an attempt by mainland U.S. manufacturers to stifle competition.

"This action is not near what people wanted to get out of it," he said. "There is more than just money involved here, and it is certainly not all about the workers.

"It's born out of competition, pure and simple. There're a lot of unions involved and it's very political."

Saipan garment manufacturers admit there have been problems with working conditions in the past but say those issues have already been addressed.

They suspect the semi-autonomous status of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands may be the real target of the lawsuits.

Under the 1978 CNMI constitution, while the country is subject to most U.S. federal legislation and can export to the mainland duty free, it retains some freedom in creating labor laws.

Foreign workers are allowed into the country on short-term contracts, while the minimum wage in the Commonwealth is now $3.15 compared to the U.S. mainland's $5.15.

On the strength of those laws, the CNMI has built up a strong garment manufacturing industry, which last year was worth around $750 million in exports.

But human rights lawyers claim they are only interested in the unlawful exploitation of workers. In particular, they claim the code of conduct, as initially developed by the Saipan manufacturers, was woefully inadequate and had to be strengthened.

Rubin said that "the manufacturers on Saipan have had their own code of conduct and monitoring program in place for several years. We pursued this litigation in part because that monitoring program was completely ineffectual.

"It was not stopping the violations of law protecting the health and safety of workers as is required by American law and fundamental international human rights. The new code of conduct, and the new monitoring program, will remedy these violations and will prevent them from occurring in the future."

Although the manufacturers and retailers have not admitted any guilt, Rubin said that victory can still be claimed by virtue of the terms and size of the settlement. "The code of conduct and monitoring program are new, are exciting, are state-of-the-art, they will be models for future enforcement in cases similar to this." 

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia.

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