Its products are "Made in America," but you can't see the Marianas from here—or anywhere in the United States. That helps if you're Nordstrom Inc., Cutter & Buck, and other US clothing retailers.
Since the 1980s, a $1 billion sweatshop industry has blossomed on out-of-sight, out-of-mind Saipan, part of the 14-island Western Pacific chain known as the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The island's 6,000 workers, mostly young women, often work 12-hour days for the $3.05 hourly minimum and live crammed into shanty compounds encircled by barbed wire.
For the right to supply retailers under US labels, Saipan manufacturers have agreed to abide by US law. Yet human rights groups have repeatedly documented factory recruiters luring teen "guest workers" from Southeast Asia and the Philippines who are so desperate they agree to time-pay recruitment fees up to $7,000 from their meager earnings and sign promises never to unionize or quit. US inspectors have also documented deadly factory conditions including blocked exits and suffocating heat.
Seattle retailers Nordstrom and Cutter & Buck say they've looked for such violations but found none. Both sell clothing lines produced by their Saipan contractors.
"We don't believe the claims are true," Nordy spokeswoman Brooke White tells reporters. Nordstrom copresident Erik Nordstrom adds, "We remain confident about our ability to successfully defend ourselves" against such claims. Cutter & Buck president Marty Marks agrees, saying the accusations "couldn't be farther from reality."
The denials are standard corporate procedure. Except this time the retailers' comments can be viewed in a different light: They were made after the companies agreed to a historic sweatshop lawsuit settlement last month.
In January, San Francisco's Global Network and other human rights groups filed three lawsuits contending the two Seattle companies and 16 other US corporations looked the other way while Saipan's young women slaved to boost corporate bottom lines.
The claim had been especially stinging to image-conscious Nordstrom. Federal violations aside, how did it look for $3-an-hour workers living under risky conditions to supply products for an upscale chain whose board includes former US Secretary of Labor Ann McLaughlin and former US Environmental Protection Agency chief William Ruckelshaus?
But the $5-billion-a-year retailer was settling the suit, Nordy said, only because it was cheaper than going court. That was Cutter & Buck's posture, too, even though in March US regulators meted out a $336,000 fine against a C&B Saipan supplier for not paying overtime and withholding paychecks.
Along with J. Crew and Gymboree, the Seattle retailers agreed last month to set up a first-ever, $1.25 million fund to pay for independent sweatshop monitoring. The settlement guarantees overtime pay and safe drinking water, and ends recruitment fees.
Nordy and C&B admitted no wrongdoing and in the local daily press actually denied it, boasting of winning in court. It was a corporate public relations coup.
Down in San Francisco the other day, there was another view.
"They said what?" asked a surprised Jason Mark, Global Exchange spokesperson. "Look, we carefully investigated these claims. If there hadn't been these problems, we wouldn't have filed a lawsuit.
"And if they didn't think there were problems, why did they agree to pay to monitor and eliminate them? Draw your own conclusions."