Shirts for the fashionable, at a price paid in human misery On US soil, the Gap workers are forced to have abortions

Fran Abrams
Friday 24 September 1999 00:02 BST

WANG LI was still in pain and her hand strayed repeatedly to her stomach as she perched on the edge of a bed in the Hyatt hotel here. She held back her tears, but as she spoke her nose began to run, and she twisted a tissue in a knot in her fingers.

A month ago, the 22-year-old sewing-machine operator aborted the child for whom she and her boyfriend had longed. Wang Li had no right to choose - pregnancy is forbidden for Chinese garment workers on this Western Pacific island.

"When I came here the recruiter told me clearly the factory has a regulation," she said. "Nobody can get pregnant - otherwise she will be sent back. It isn't allowed. Later I heard from the other workers that the factory would coerce me into getting an abortion and send me back to China - or just send me back."

She wore what looked like her best dress, a crisp white brocade top with a short black skirt, and her make-up had been carefully applied. "I really wanted to have the baby. I would have had it if there had been a way not to get sent back. My boyfriend wanted it too. He feels pitiful about it."

The most astonishing thing about the abuse of Wang Li is that it happened not under the wing of some Third World dictatorship but on US soil. The island operates under American law and if the baby had been born it would have been a US citizen.

For Wang Li, going home to China for help was impossible: the shame of landing on her family's doorstep pregnant and penniless would have been too great. In any case, she could not afford the fare even after two years making clothes bearing the labels of world-class designers who include Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. The pounds 2,400 she borrowed to cover her recruitment fee took many months to pay off and the cost of the abortion drained her resources still further.

Wang Li's story is not unique. The birth rate among the 13,000 Chinese "guest" workers here is low. One study suggested a Chinese woman was more likely to have a baby in prison on Saipan than while working in a garment factory.

Other workers told similar stories. Chen Qian Hong, who sewed sleeves on Gap sweatshirts, said one worker in her factory hid her pregnancy for four months. When she was discovered, she was sent back to China and made to have an abortion. She was told she could return after the operation, but her friends did not see her again. "It was obvious she had no choice," said Chen Qian Hong. "She could not come back because she would be a bad example and the factory would really lose face."

Recently, after the US Department of Insular Affairs launched an inquiry into the allegations, another worker in the same factory was allowed to stay on after becoming pregnant. But Chen Qian Hong said the woman still feared she would be pressured into leaving her job before the baby arrives.

Moied Heqin, who also sews Gap shirts and comes from a different part of China, said she signed a contract with her recruiter that had specific rules. "It said getting married is not allowed and getting pregnant is not allowed," she said. "If I got pregnant I would be in breach of my contract."

She was told she would lose her deposit of pounds 85 and would also be fined for pregnancy. Although conditions in some of the island's 32 major garment factories are better, the workers who spoke to The Independent told remarkably similar tales of abuse and deceit.

Before Wang Li came to Saipan, she had worked her way up for two years in a garment factory in Southern China to earn a line supervisor's salary of pounds 120 a month. When she saw television advertisements offering jobs in the US to garment workers, she rushed to apply.

The pay would be at least pounds 530 per month after deductions, she was told. There would be furnished accommodation with air-conditioning, hot water and a television. The written examination and skills' test were hard and competition was tough, but Wang Li was determined to succeed.

She borrowed the recruiter's pounds 2,000 fee, plus pounds 400 for a suitcase and other necessities and prepared to leave for a new life in America. The truth dawned slowly to dawn on the plane from Seoul. The flight time to Saipan was less than five hours - far too short to get to the United States.

Wang Li found herself on a tiny island 6,000 miles from America, in a squalid barracks, sharing a room with three other workers and rats and cockroaches. The water from a shared tap was salty, undrinkable and cold. The shower and air-conditioning did not work and there was no television. The toilets were filthy, outside, and far from the barracks. The food was better than in some factories, where there have been mass outbreaks of food poisoning. That food cost Wang Li pounds 130 a month, whether she ate it or not, with the accommodation.

The factory, too, was hot and dusty. not as the recruiter promised. For months Wang Li worked up to 15 hours a day, six or seven days a week, for pounds 130 per month after deductions. The extra hours were called "volunteer time" but little was voluntary. Only machinists who fulfilled impossibly high quotas could qualify for paid overtime. Without it, their board, lodgings and loan repayments would leave them with nothing.

Out of that pounds 130, Wang Li had to find money to pay the recruiter. If she did not pay, her family in China could face prison. Later, she was able to earn overtime but her wages never came near what she had been promised, and there was still "volunteer time" to do. By Asian standards, Saipan's pounds 2 an hour minimum wage is generous, but the deductions mean workers receive much less.

Pay slips were in English, so employees could not read them. The average take-home pay was about pounds 1.20 per hour before the recruiters received their share - which could be as much as nine-tenths of the money. Some showed deductions for medical insurance, which is supposed to be covered by the employer.

Even after paying this, the service available to workers was minimal. Some workers complained to China's Zhejiang Workers' Daily newspaper, describing how a colleague died while medical staff in the factory refused to help. One group told of a colleague forced to work on after a needle went through her finger. There was no guard on her machine.

One worker, Wan Lin, who embroidered the Lauren and Hilfiger labels, said when inspectors were due workers stopped sewing to clean the factories. "Sometimes we have to clean the factory and sometimes the barracks," she said. "They even put toilet paper in the rest room. One time American inspectors came and they found ants in the workshop. After they left the management wanted to know who cleaned that area, and a whole line of workers was suspended."

Personal freedom outside work is limited. Wang Li was not allowed to have a boyfriend, but soon after her arrival a friend introduced her to Li Gang, a shop-worker who is the same age. She would sneak out of her barracks in the evening to meet him, returning before the 11pm curfew set by the factory.

For almost two years, the couple kept their affair quiet. But after Wang Li had the abortion, everything changed. Suffering infections and heavy bleeding, she returned to work and the supervisor discovered her secret. "My body was very weak," she said. "The supervisor scolded me and humiliated me in front of everybody. She laughed at me. I really could not put up with the situation."

Wang Li left the factory and went to live with Li Gang. When she returned to collect outstanding wages for 24 hours' work she received just pounds 4 instead of the pounds 48 she was owed.

Now she walks the streets looking for work, but she has little hope. She would prefer work in a shop to a factory, but there is no opportunity for her in either. "I will stay here and look for a job," she said. "It is impossible to go back to China." As she spoke, Wang Li stared out of the hotel window, beyond its lavish gardens to a white, palm-fringed beach where Japanese and American tourists sunbathed. Saipan is only 10 miles long but the inhabitants of its two worlds are barely aware of each other's existence.

And Wang Li still fears the power of the bosses who run the factories, though she no longer works for them. For that reason her identity, like those of the other workers in this report, has been disguised.

n Richard Pierce, executive director of the Saipan Garment Manufacturers' Association, expressed horror when presented with evidence of forced abortions. "If it is true, it is horrible ... absolutely immoral and inexcusable."

Mr Pierce said the industry was cleaning up its act. One factory has been suspended from the association.

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