Here’s the latest dispatch from the global marketplace. Dozens of Vietnamese women working in a sweatshop in American Samoa were beaten, deprived of food and not paid minimum wages as they carried out their assigned role in our great borderless economy. The workers were making clothes for a Korean company that sells its merchandise to American department stores, including the J. C. Penney and Sears chains.
Thank heaven for American imperialism, because if American Samoa were part of plain old Samoa, we’d probably never know that these workers lived in prison-like conditions, were held in virtual bondage and were subjected to conditions we associate with the long-ago excesses of 19th-century free-market capitalism. Because American Samoa is a U.S. territory, in accordance with a 19th-century power agreement with Great Britain and Germany, the Labor Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had the authority to step in and investigate these horrific abuses. A copy of the Labor Department’s report was leaked to The New York Times, according to the paper, by an anti-sweatshop activist. You know the typeprobably some too-earnest kid who ought to get a job, make lots of money and pontificate about the wonders of free trade
According to Sweatshop Watch, an increasingly indispensable organization that knows the real cost of brand-name sneakers and cheap sportswear, American Samoa may be about to become a new Saipan. A half-century ago, an American liberation force led by the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions landed on Saipan to free it from Japanese occupation. More than 3,000 Americans lost their lives in the effort (and, in a measure of what the Marines were up against, 29,500 of the 31,600 Japanese defenders were killed). Saipan is now the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, an American possession. It is also, according to Sweatshop Watch, an island littered with sweatshops, where young immigrant women are...toiling for poverty wages under slave-like conditions.
The Marines killed at Saipan did not die to make the world safe for poverty wages and slave-like conditions. Yet those conditions exist on the very soil American troops liberated a half-century ago. Worse yet, because Saipan and American Samoa are U.S. territories, the garments sewn on those islands under brutal conditions bear the Made in U.S.A. label.
News of gross human rights violations on American Samoa broke just a couple of weeks before a feisty woman named Rose Freedman died in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was 107 years old, and according to her obituaries, she was quite the charactera devoted Lakers’ fan, an artist, a world-traveler, a woman who never stopped learning. She went to Mexico to learn Spanish when she was 100.
She also was the last survivor of a singular event in 20th-century American history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in lower Manhattan. Mrs. Freedman was working in that horrific sweatshop as a teenager; the fire broke out two days before her 18th birthday. As you might imagine, she never forgot the events of that terrible day, when 146 girls and young women died either by smoke and flames or by jumping from 10th-story windows. The conditions under which these women and teenage girls workedlocked doors, exploitive wages, poor lightingare part of America’s 20th-century narrative. Labor unions and furious politicians swore that the fire’s victims would not be forgotten, and from the ashes of that fire rose a social reform movement that led to greater government regulation of the workplace and marketplace.
Sadly, however, the workers on American Samoa and Saipan, among other places, do not enjoy the workplace reforms that are part of the fire’s legacy. And no reading of history supports the idea that enlightened capital will reform itself. Sneaker giant Nike occasionally promises to end exploitation in its Asian plants, but it recently confessed that those efforts aren’t working. The historian Edward O’Donnell, who will be teaching at his alma mater, Holy Cross, in the fall, pointed out that workplace and marketplace reforms occur only when labor agitates for them. Measures such as the minimum wage, the abolition of child labor and safety regulations came about only after slow and incremental pressure by workers, who formed alliances with sympathetic middle-class reformers, Professor O’Donnell noted. Those middle-class reformers believed in the free market, but they saw that the excesses of the free market were turning workers into anarchists. And they saw that the children of these workers weren’t going to school. They were going to work. So it was part humanitarian, part self-preservation by the union movement’s middle-class allies.
Those twin impulses ought to be brought to bear in this new Gilded Age, in which women workers are held in virtual slavery on soil that American soldiers died to liberate during World War II. With both American political parties in the thrall of free trade, it’s up to labor unions, reformers and those earnest college kids who protest World Trade Organization meetings to remind American consumers of the effects of an unregulated marketplace. In a documentary about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Rose Freedman bitterly condemned the factory owners who valued material, money more than the lives of her co-workers.
Regrettably, she would not have been surprised to read about the abuses in American Samoa. Rather, they would have sounded terribly familiar.