Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The party of values

The image of the Republican Party as a ruling entity that has been emerging in recent weeks -- helped in large part by the Foley scandal -- is not a pretty one.

It's rather like the fellow who announces his patriotic and moral virtue by wrapping himself in an American flag -- and then uses it to flash the kids at the local schoolyard. ("Hey boys, want to see my torture policy?")

The image was only consolidated further over the weekend by the revelations in the Los Angeles Times about Ken Mehlman's long associations with the corrupt Republican lobbying cabal headed by Jack Abramoff. Those associations, of course, are rather at variance with Mehlman's earlier claims.

But the Times story was almost as noteworthy for what revealed about the peculiar Republican brand of morality:
For five years, Allen Stayman wondered who ordered his removal from a State Department job negotiating agreements with tiny Pacific island nations — even when his own bosses wanted him to stay.

Now he knows.

Newly disclosed e-mails suggest that the ax fell after intervention by one of the highest officials at the White House: Ken Mehlman, on behalf of one of the most influential lobbyists in town, Jack Abramoff.

The e-mails show that Abramoff, whose client list included the Northern Mariana Islands, had long opposed Stayman's work advocating labor changes in that U.S. commonwealth, and considered what his lobbying team called the "Stayman project" a high priority.

"Mehlman said he would get him fired," an Abramoff associate wrote after meeting with Mehlman, who was then White House political director.

It's worth remembering just what kind of conditions that Stayman was working to change. A 1999 report in Salon on Tom DeLay's connections to the Saipan sweatshops gave us a small portrait, including a discussion of how the sweatshops came to be in the first place:
It was around this time, however, that mandarins from Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China began setting up textile factories on Saipan and importing labor from the mainland, as well as from Bangladesh and the Philippines, to cut and stitch cloth for garment makers including JC Penney, the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Clairborne, Jones New York, Abercrombie & Fitch, Levi Strauss, Nautica and many others -- a virtual Who's Who of designer labels. The idea was to slip under the radar of U.S. quotas and duties, which would cost the manufacturers millions more if the garments were made outside U.S. territory. Garments from Saipan are made from foreign cloth, assembled by foreign workers on U.S. soil and labeled "Made in the USA."

And they are made cheaply. Wages in the factories average about $3 per hour -- more than $2 less than the U.S. minimum wage of $5.15. No overtime is paid for a 70-hour work week. But that's hardly the worst of it. Far away from the swank beachside hotels, luxurious golf courses and the thousands of Japanese tourists snorkling around sunken U.S. Navy landing craft in the clear waters, some 31,000 textile workers live penned up like cattle by armed soldiers and barbed wire, and squeezed head to toe into filthy sleeping barracks, all of which was documented on film by U.S. investigators last year.

The unhappy workers cannot just walk away, either: Like Appalachian coal miners a generation ago, they owe their souls to the company store, starting with factory recruiters, who charge Chinese peasants as much as $4,000 to get them out of China and into a "good job" in "America." Their low salaries make it nearly impossible to buy back their freedom. And so they stay. The small print in their contracts forbids sex, drinking -- and dissent.

"I am very tired," wrote Li Zhen Hua, a 29-year-old Chinese woman in a letter to a friend obtained by the weekly Dallas Observer. "I want to go back to my country but I can't because we must keep [sic] two years ... Very busy. So hard. Every day work up to 1:30. I've to work on Sunday. Too much to respond to your letters."

Another report from a Saipan newspaper goes into more detail:
The one worker I have access to for this article hasn't been paid in eight weeks. He usually works seven days a week, but receives no overtime pay for such toil. He would like to be able to get a glimpse of Saipan's beaches and sunshine, but he says that he's so overburdened with his job that he seldom has a chance to venture outside.

The worker has no retirement benefits. No health benefits, either. And dental insurance? Get real.

He has no paid vacation. No paid holidays. And if he's sick and can't work, then he loses pay, so he is essentially forced to work even if he has the flu of a fever.

His skin has the pallor of someone who has spent too long under artificial lighting, and not enough time under the sun's rays.

The work space is a chaotic nightmare of clutter. A broken chair--a clear violation of OSHA standards--sits in a musty corner.

The lighting is dim because the lightbulb broke yesterday. It hasn't been replaced because the company is so stingy it has forbidden any corporate expenditures until the end of the month.

The worker gets headaches, occasionally, from being overworked. And perched on an old file cabinet is a dusty jar of Rolaids. Contents: five and a half Rolaids, and two dead ants.

This worker came to Saipan from a vast and distant land, lured by promises of a better life. The promises wilted in the harsh reality of corruption and nepotism and shady government dealings.

While the softbellies were at home, heaping the turkey onto their Thanksgiving plates, the sweatshop worker put in a full day at work, and then a full evening, pausing only for a bit of chicken for dinner. His pay for the day: nothing.

And he worked, too, on Christmas. No pay for that, either.

He doesn't complain, however. He figures it's his station in life to work where he works. Some of his friends here are in the same position, finding themselves working harder and harder for less and less compensation. They occasionally find an hour or two to pop a cold beer, and they sit outside and discuss their situations in Saipan.

Of course, Stayman was hardly the only person trying to change conditions in Saipan. Another, as Mark Shields pointed out last year, was Frank Murkowski, that arch-conservative Republican from Alaska. He too was railroaded by DeLay:
Moved by the sworn testimony of U.S. officials and human-rights advocates that the 91 percent of the workforce who were immigrants -- from China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh -- were being paid barely half the U.S. minimum hourly wage and were forced to live behind barbed wire in squalid shacks minus plumbing, work 12 hours a day, often seven days a week, without any of the legal protections U.S. workers are guaranteed, Murkowski wrote a bill to extend the protection of U.S. labor and minimum-wage laws to the workers in the U.S. territory of the Northern Marianas.

So compelling was the case for change the Alaska Republican marshaled that in early 2000, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Murkowski worker reform bill.

But one man primarily stopped the U.S. House from even considering that worker-reform bill: then-House Republican Whip Tom DeLay.

Of course, there's no small irony that just this week, George W. Bush declared this "National Character Counts Week."

Indeed it does. Which may have something to do with those polls showing the nation's increasing abhorrence for the Republican version of "values."

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