SHOPPERS who make it a point to look for "Made in the USA" labels in the clothes they buy will not be amused to learn that in some instances, "in the USA" happens to be out in the Western Pacific, 5,000 miles from the continental United States. Saipan, part of the American commonwealth in the Northern Mariana Islands, has become a manufacturing center where Asian workers stitch American brand-name clothes, often under sweatshop conditions and in foreign-owned factories.
The practice involves some - but not all - of the clothing sold under such familiar labels as Montgomery Ward, The Gap, Geoffrey Beene, Eddie Bauer, Arrow, and Liz Claiborne. It reportedly brought an estimated $279 million worth of wholesale clothing into the US last year.
Since local islanders are American citizens, the labels are technically correct. But the practice, which is legal, is shameful on two fronts, misleading workers and consumers.
Many laborers from the Philippines, China, and other Asian countries accept these jobs because they are told they will work "where the American flag is flying." But any dreams of eventually reaching the US end on this remote island, where they live in squalid barracks, sometimes surrounded by barbed wire and uniformed guards on patrol. Some workers become almost indentured servants, trapped in low-paying jobs and unable to afford to go home.
For American consumers trying to do their part to keep jobs and money in this country, the labels from Saipan make a joke of campaigns by unions and consumer groups in recent years that encourage shoppers to "buy American."
If General Motors or Ford assembled automobiles on Saipan in foreign-owned factories employing foreign laborers and then claimed that the cars were American-made, there would be loud cries of protest. Why is clothing made by these faraway workers any different?
To its credit, the American Apparel Manufacturers Association is trying to end labor abuses on Saipan. And the governor of the islands wants to create a human rights commission to protect workers.
Labeling Saipan's products "Made in the USA" comes close to deceiving the consumer. But using the prestigious letters USA to mislead the workers, transplanted and exploited in this shoddy enterprise, is an outrage too cynical to be tolerated.