Gap resists settlement of Saipan sweatshop
Saturday, March 2, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle Jenny
Strasburg, Chronicle Staff Writer
Gap Inc. has been leading the charge against a proposed $8.75 million
settlement in a 3-year-old lawsuit alleging sweatshop conditions and
intimidation of foreign workers in the Saipan garment
industry. The San Francisco
company that owns Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic stores, whose sales
have been eroding the past two years, is seeking to block other retailers
from settling the case, according to attorneys for garment-factory
workers and other retailers that want to settle. Gap says it is opposing
the settlement to defend itself against false accusations and misrepresentations
of factory conditions.
The case involves the garment industry on the western Pacific island
of Saipan, a U.S.
commonwealth exempt from some federal labor laws that apply to the rest
of the United States.
Attorneys for an estimated 30,000 current and former garment workers in
Saipan accuse the retailers
and owners of the island's most prominent factories of perpetuating a
system of indentured servitude among mostly poor guest workers, many
of them from China.
A settlement proposal has been on the table since 1999. The most recent
calls for independent monitoring of dozens of factories on the island,
a code of conduct among retailers and manufacturers,
and about $4 million in payments for workers. The landmark case has made
headlines since it was filed in January 1999.
Hearings will continue this month in a federal courtroom on Saipan.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs maintain that the predominantly female population
of factory workers has had to work overtime without being paid and has
been subject to unsafe working conditions, exorbitant job-recruitment
fees, illegal threats of deportation and rules prohibiting having children
or marrying. Some 50 defendants, including retailers and factory owners,
have said they have sufficiently monitored manufacturing operations to
prevent intimidation of workers, sweatshop conditions and other abuses
that have been alleged. Attorneys for Gap and
other retailers have called the suit an attempt by U.S.
labor unions to strike back at overseas garment manufacturers that have
taken jobs away from the United States.
Gap, whose products are made in about 50 countries, says it has a team
of about 80 full-time factory monitors working around the world. They
conduct scheduled and surprise visits of factories that make Gap products
to ensure that standards of safety and human rights are being respected,
said Gap spokeswoman Tamsin Randlett. "We've been there; we've checked
it out," she said of Gap's contract factories, including those on
Saipan. Joining Gap in opposing the settlement
are San Francisco
jeansmaker Levi Strauss & Co., the Limited, Lane
Bryant, Abercrombie & Fitch, Target, J.C.Penney,
May Co., Talbots and more than a dozen Saipan factory owners.
Levi Strauss, which like Gap has manufacturing contracts in about 50
countries, ceased operations on Saipan in 2000 for reasons unrelated
to the lawsuit, said spokeswoman Linda Butler. One of the first large
apparel companies to write a manufacturers' code of conduct, in 1991,
Levi says its contract factories on Saipan were
in full compliance with company standards. Unlike Gap and Levi, 19 retailers
have agreed to settle the case, without admitting to wrongdoing. They
include the Gymboree Corp. of Burlingame,Sears
Roebuck and Co., Nordstrom, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Polo Ralph
Lauren, Liz Claiborne and Brooks Bros.
Attorneys for the workers include San Francisco
labor attorney Michael Rubin and heavyweight class-action specialists
Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach. They are seeking class certification
of an estimated 30,000 workers employed on the island between 1989 and
now. "We're alleging an overarching conspiracy, a scheme," Rubin
said. "I don't mind Gap fighting this case and taking it to trial
. . . (but) what I don't understand is: Why is Gap blocking these other
companies from settling?" Rubin described the retailer defendants
as powerful multinational companies cooperating with Saipan
factory owners to maintain a cheap, controllable labor
force in order to maximize profits.
Gap attorney Daralyn Durie of San Francisco
argued, however, that in order to allow the settlement, the court would
have to decide that the case meets the requirements of a class action
on behalf of the entire group of workers. That requires that they experienced
the same work and living conditions, something Durie said is not the
case, since the workers were employed at different
factories in different years and at varying levels of satisfaction. "We
don't think it's fair to lump all the factories together, and we don't
think it's fair to lump all the workers together," Durie said, adding
that workers who gave depositions told vastly different stories about
their experiences on Saipan. In February, U.S.
District Judge Alex Munson heard arguments regarding class certification
but has not issued a ruling. All of the retailer and factory defendants,
meanwhile, are seeking dismissal of the case.
A March 19 hearing is scheduled in consideration of those motions. If
dismissal is not granted, the defendants will probably continue
to seek a settlement. Tensions are growing among holdouts and defendants
who would like to avoid further litigation costs. David Schwarz, a Los
Angeles attorney representing retailer J. Crew,
which seeks to settle, told the court in February that he supports Gap's
internal efforts to improve factory conditions. But he said he did not
understand "their decision to stand in the way of a consensual agreement"
as provided in the settlement. Another case filed on behalf of Saipan
workers, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees
and the San Francisco human
rights organization Global Exchange is pending in San Francisco Superior
Court. That case alleges unfair business practices among many of the same
retailers and factory owners.