SAIPAN IN MIDST OF TEXTILE CONFLICT \ ILLEGAL TRANSSHIPMENT CONFIRMED IN LATEST STUDY

SAIPAN IN MIDST OF TEXTILE CONFLICT \ ILLEGAL TRANSSHIPMENT CONFIRMED IN LATEST STUDY

The Interior Department has compiled new evidence of textile trade fraud, religious persecution and forced abortions suffered by garment workers on the U.S.-controlled island of Saipan in the Pacific.

''This is not happening in China; this is happening on American soil. I think any American would be very disturbed by what's happening there,'' said Al Stayman, the top Interior department official responsible for relations with U.S. territories.The evidence was collected in December and January by a private investigator and human rights activists hired by the department, after Interior officials decided the Customs Service and other federal authorities on the island were unable to fully investigate the charges.

The information will be used in the coming weeks to try to overcome Republican opposition in Congress to restricting trade and seizing federal control of wage and immigration policy from the government of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, where Saipan is located.

Interior officials say they pursued the allegations of forced abortion and religious persecution in part as a strategy to divide Republicans who are sensitive on these issues.

Tom Gray, a former customs enforcement official, was hired by the Interior Department after local Saipan authorities last fall refused to cooperate with U.S. customs inspectors investigating textile fraud charges, according to Mr. Stayman.

Mr. Gray found that 30 percent of the island's garment makers were illegally transshipping Chinese-made apparel and labeling it as ''made in the USA'' to evade import tariffs and quota restrictions, Mr. Stayman said.

He also combed through government records on the island to verify charges that most of the apparel manufactured on Saipan is produced by companies wholly or partly owned by the Chinese government.

Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist for the commonwealth, said extensive inspections by U.S. lawmakers and their staffs had shown that past allegations of worker abuse were unfounded. ''I am not aware of any problems with forced abortion or religious persecution, but we haven't seen the evidence.''

The use of outside investigators is the latest chapter in an increasingly bitter and partisan fight over the archipelago, which became a U.S. territory in 1976.

10,000 ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS

As part of the agreement annexing the territory, it was exempted from federal minium wage, workplace and immigration laws, and allowed to ship its goods to the United States duty-free. The result has been a booming textile industry, built by investors from Hong Kong and China and fueled with immigrant labor from China, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Guest workers now make up 60 percent of Saipan's 65,000 inhabitants, not counting an estimated 10,000 illegal immigrants.

Under the Clinton administration, labor and human rights activists have teamed up with officials at the Interior and Labor departments to air charges of horrendous worker abuses in Saipan, the largest island in the territory.

According to Interior officials and many news accounts, thousands of young women and men are brought to work in the island's factories and then held in virtual servitude. They live in squalid, overpriced housing while laboring 12 hours a day to pay off thousands of dollars in debt incurred traveling from their home countries. When workers go unpaid or unfairly lose their jobs, they have little recourse with the island's government, these accounts charge.

GOP BLOCKS LEGISLATION

The Clinton administration has proposed legislation partly revoking the agreement with the commonwealth and imposing U.S. labor and immigration law. But it has been blocked by House Republican leaders, who reject many of the charges and say new regulations would cripple local industry.

Recent newspaper stories have highlighted the role of Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House, who took his family on a trip to Saipan late last year at the expense of the Marianas government. Along with House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Resources Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, Rep. DeLay has been an outspoken supporter of Saipan industry and was instrumental in blocking the administration's bill.

Mr. Stayman, the Interior official who has led the fight to force reforms in Saipan, admits the new investigation's emphasis on forced abortion and religious persecution was aimed at pressuring Republicans.

''We haven't had too much success interesting them in unpaid wages and (poor) working conditions,'' he said. ''Let's hope this is different.''

A spokesman for Rep. DeLay conceded that credible charges of religious persecution and forced abortions would bother many Republicans.

''It's appropriate to have a real debate on the conditions there, but it is inappropriate to try to frame it for political purposes,'' said spokesman John Feehery.

RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION

Mr. Stayman said the accounts of religious persecution and forced abortion were provided by Mr. Gray and a handful of human rights and religious activists who have publicized charges of the abuses. He said their findings will be presented as conclusions of the Interior Department on or before a March 31 hearing on Saipan's labor and immigration policies by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Mr. Stayman defended employing human rights and religious activists, arguing that they had long experience in Saipan and were better suited to contacting workers on the island than Mr. Gray or federal prosecutors.

''They documented and recorded everything,'' he said. ''It's impossible to skew it one way or the other.'' He estimated that Interior paid ''less than $100,000'' to employ its investigators for about a month.

Abortion is illegal in Saipan, where the indigenous population is heavily Catholic, but Mr. Stayman said his investigators had documented how Chinese-owned textile producers had organized an illegal abortion industry on the island.

MEDICAL CONDITIONS QUERIED

Practitioners of acupuncture and traditional Chinese herbal medicine have been brought over to serve the thousands of Chinese laborers on Saipan and are performing abortions under questionable medical conditions, he said.

''Women who get pregnant are told they will be fired unless they do something about it,'' Mr. Stayman said. ''These women can't afford to return to China, where they've borrowed thousands of dollars to get there in the first place, so they have no choice.'' The investigation found five women who said they were pressured to have abortions and one who followed through to terminate her pregnancy, he said.

Religious persecution is rampant in Chinese-owned factories on Saipan, said Mr. Stayman, and Interior's private investigators encountered many instances of workers being fired simply because they were practicing Christians.

He defended tailoring the recent investigation to yield charges that would be especially discomfiting to Republicans. ''This issue is already politicized. It became politicized when the (Marianas) government paid $4.5 million to lobbyists to target Republicans,'' he said.

ANTI-ABORTION RIDERS

Elsewhere in Congress, Clinton administration officials are condemning Republican efforts to put anti-abortion riders on a bill to fund the Asian financial bailout, calling it a politicization of a vital foreign policy decision.

Mr. Stayman was blunt in describing the government of the commonwealth as ''corrupt . . . completely in the pocket of the apparel industry'' and ''completely dug in'' against addressing Clinton administration complaints.

The Interior official said it is coordinating announcement of these new charges in a segment of the ABC-TV news show ''20/20'' as soon as this evening. He will repeat them at the Senate hearing March 31.

The administration's bill would impose U.S. minimum wages, extend U.S immigration law, and cut off trade benefits for the Marianas unless 50 percent of the apparel industry's workers are U.S. citizens. Mr. Abramoff said this hiring shift was impossible, since citizens on the island would command wages too high for the industry to remain competitive.

Others have pointed out that textile factories operate in another U.S. territory, Samoa, using indigenous labor and paying full U.S. minimum wage.

$187 MILLION COST

Confident of victory on the bill, the Clinton administration included the revenue from tariff hikes to the Marianas in its budget proposal last month. Revoking this benefit, which covered roughly $800 million in apparel from the territory in 1997, will cost Saipan producers $187 million a year, according to that budget.

Mr. Gray was hired by the Interior Department after it became clear that customs officials in the commonwealth would not allow U.S. Customs to investigate transshipment, said Mr. Stayman.

''Customs had identified a particular shipment from Hong Kong as suspect, and they were ready to seize it, but the local customs officials wouldn't let them,'' he said. ''At that point, it became clear that Customs was not going to be able to deal with this. And they acknowledged this.''

Acting Customs Commissioner Sam Banks could not be reached to comment on the agency's efforts in Saipan.