GAP & other sweatshops go on trial
Gap, Target, Levi Strauss: Pacific island workers' suit claims factories are

A suit over alleged sweatshop conditions on the island of Saipan is to go to trial
after a judge overruled complaints from major U.S. retailers, who said they were
not responsible for working conditions in factories that made their clothing.

"We won another important round today," said Al Meyerhoff, one of the lawyers
for the workers. "The Saipan workers are going to get their day in court. This case
is going to trial."

According to the lawyers, U.S. District Judge Alex R. Munson in Saipan said the
allegations, if proved in trial, were sufficient to establish the liability of both the
factories and retailers for engaging in a conspiracy to use indentured labour in
violation of racketeering laws.

The suit marks the first attempt to use federal racketeering laws to hold U.S.
companies accountable for mistreatment of workers in foreign-owned factories
operating on U.S. soil.

The defendants -- a host of the best-known clothing makers in the United States
-- are accused of allowing the mistreatment of thousands of workers on Saipan,
a Pacific island 2,000 kilometres south of Tokyo.

According to the complaint, the more than 13,000 garment workers on Saipan
often work 12-hour days, seven days a week, in unsafe, unclean conditions that
violate U.S. labour laws and international treaties.

The suit also claims Saipan garment factories employ foreign workers, primarily
young women from China, bound by contracts that effectively make them
indentured labourers.

The retailers, who include the Gap, Target, Levi Strauss and Co. had sought to be
freed from the suit, saying they were simply customers of Saipan factories and
not legally responsible for the actions of factory owners.

A spokesman for Target said the company did not comment on continuing
litigation but had specific and rigorous general policies on labour practices.

"We have a very clear-cut and definitive and aggressive policy that we adhere to
and our vendors very rigidly adhere to to ensure that working conditions in all of
our locations around the world are acceptable to our guidelines," said Douglas

Nineteen retailers have offered to settle the claims against them by agreeing to
adhere to a rigorous system of independent monitoring at the Saipan factories of
the contractors who produce their clothes.

The settlement would require retailers to ensure their factories comply with
strict employment standards. They would pledge, among other things, to pay
overtime for overtime work, provide safe food and water, and respect
employees' basic human rights.

Michael Rubin, another lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said the judge had
asked for parts of the complaint to be repleaded to demonstrate more clearly
the direct involvement and control the retailers allegedly exert over the labour
agreements in the factories.

"We have to prove everything. We have to prove they have recruitment fees, we
have to prove that the factories exist," he said. "But the judge said that if you can
prove these facts that you allege, then you win."

National Post, October 31, 2001

Profile of quoted companies:

The Gap Inc.

Target Corp.

Levi Strauss and Co.

The Transnational Corporations Observatory

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