Blog: Labour exploitation in Saipan (again): what difference does 20 years make?

Author: Aaron Halegua, New York University School of Law , Published on: 3 December 2018

Labour practices on the Pacific island of Saipan...are making headlines again...This time around, the victims of labour abuse were migrant construction workers from China...CNMI legislators...granted an exclusive license to build and operate a hotel and casino to Imperial Pacific, a Hong Kong-based company. Imperial Pacific then hired numerous Chinese construction firms...

The firms forced employees to work 13-hour days, offered no day off, paid below minimum wage, served insect-infested meals, provided abysmal living quarters, and confiscated worker passports. Injury rates on the site were far above average; several workers died; and in an effort to conceal the illegal workforce, the firms avoided taking workers to the hospital for treatment...

However, there have been a few positive elements in the response to this episode...The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) charged the Chinese firms with dozens of “serious violations”...The Department of Justice criminally prosecuted firm managers for illegal employment and immigration practices...[T]he U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) reached settlements requiring four of the Chinese construction firms to pay USD 13.9 million in back wages and liquidated damages to over 2,400 employees...

From a legal perspective, one particularly significant aspect of the USDOL settlements is that the compensation included reimbursement by the construction firms of the recruitment fees paid in China by the workers...

This chapter of the Saipan saga does not have an entirely happy ending though. While some remedy was obtained for the Chinese migrants, the workers who replaced them also suffered abuses...The lesson learned with the garment industry is equally applicable here: meaningful change requires accountability at the top of the chain...

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Related companies: Imperial Pacific International