U.S. OFFICIAL URGES PROBE OF CNMI POLICE USE OF FORCE

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By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, May 10) – Federal Labor Ombudsman Jim Benedetto says it would be "prudent" for the Department of Public Safety to conduct an investigation into the allegations of Top Fashion Corp. garment workers that police officers used "unnecessary" force on the workers at the Tanapag factory on Monday night after he watched video footage, saw photos, and heard personal stories from workers and witnesses.

Several of the workers were hit with batons and pepper-sprayed, suffering physical injuries.

About a dozen were taken to the hospital after management called police after workers prevented management personnel from leaving the factory premises on Monday night.

"I think all of that justifies a look at whether the police overreacted or not," Benedetto said in an interview. "I didn’t see everything that happened because I wasn’t there. I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that unnecessary force was used but I think it would be prudent for Public Safety to conduct an investigation to determine whether unnecessary force was used or whether any force used was justifiable."

DPS Commissioner Rebecca Warfield, in a separate interview with reporters yesterday, said police officers’ actions were proper and that there’s no need for an investigation unless there is a complaint filed against police officers because of their treatment of Top Fashion workers.

Yesterday, hundreds of Top Fashion workers met with Benedetto, Department of Labor officials and Top Fashion counsel Michael Dotts at the Tanapag factory, wanting to hear direct answers to their questions — including those pertaining to the reimbursement of portions of the US$3,000 to US$4,000 in recruitment fees they paid in China to work at Top Fashion, and why police officers allegedly used unnecessary force against them.

On Tuesday, the workers walked from their Tanapag barracks to the Federal Labor Ombudsman’s office in Puerto Rico for help.

The workers were asked yesterday to be "patient" as company and government officials work with the Chinese Economic Development Association and other entities to help them get back a portion of the recruitment fees they paid.

Labor officials told the workers that after July 2, Top Fashion workers have 45 days to look for transfer employment if they want to remain on Saipan.

Felix Hofschneider, one of the local officials at Top Fashion, yesterday said the company has "about 500" resident and nonresident workers, and only about 70 want reimbursements of portions of the recruitment fees they paid.

Dotts and Hofschneider separately told workers that if factory operations go smoothly until July 2, the management is likely to pay Top Fashion workers for this week even though employees did not work due to what happened.

Top Fashion workers may be called back to work on Monday or on Friday at the latest.

Labor case

Acting Deputy Labor Secretary Alfred Pangelinan and Assistant Attorney General Dorothy Hill confirmed that an agency compliance case has been opened to formally investigate the planned July 2 closure of Top Fashion.

Labor investigator Carlos Camacho and Hill said, based on preliminary information, only a few workers came in at the beginning of the year.

The workers wanting reimbursement said they arrived on Saipan three to six months ago.

Labor officials expect that before the factory’s closure on July 2, they will be able to complete the investigation.

They also encourage the workers to continue their work once the factory reopens, as the garment factory still has orders from retailers to complete.

The hundreds of workers selected a few individuals to represent them in discussions with Labor officials.

The whole incident started when about a hundred garment workers held a sit-in protest at the factory on Monday due mainly to concerns that they wouldn’t be able to get reimbursements on recruitment fees they paid. At about 5 p.m., workers barricaded the premises, preventing management personnel from leaving their offices.

At around 6 p.m., Top Fashion management called police for assistance. Workers told how they were pushed, beaten, kicked, sprayed with mace, shocked, had their hair pulled, and were stepped on by police officers.

Seven male Chinese workers were arrested by police at the scene, and about a dozen were brought to the Commonwealth Health Center for treatment of their injuries.

The sit-in protest came a few days after Top Fashion general manager Jang Suk Lim issued a notice to employees that the garment factory operations would cease on July 2, the 15th Saipan factory to close since the World Trade Organization lifted trade quotas in January 2005.

Workers interviewed yesterday said Top Fashion manufactures Sears, Liz Claiborne and Kohl brands of apparel. Previously, they were also manufacturing clothes for Limited, among others.

"I don’t want to go home. I still want to work on Saipan," said one of the workers who has been working at Top Fashion for 10 years.

Many of the workers from China, however, are willing to go back to their home country after July 2, but want to have their recruitment fees reimbursed.

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