February 26, 2001

Former Sweatshop Worker Connects With C.U. Activists

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Carmencita “Chie” Abad’s fourth stop on her week-long New York speaking tour was at Cornell’s Anabel Taylor Hall where she detailed her experience as a sweatshop garment worker.

Abad spent six years in Saipan working for the Sako Corporation, which had manufacturing contracts with Gap, Ann Taylor and the University of California among others.

“In Saipan, they always use the label ‘Made in the USA,'” Abad said.

Saipan is one of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, and is a U.S. Commonwealth.

In her half-hour speech, Abad traced her journey from sweatshop laborer to spokesperson for Global Exchange, a non-governmental human rights organization.

After filing an unanswered complaint with the Saipan Department of Labor about the factories legal infractions, Abad decided to try to organize her fellow workers into a union.

When asked what motivated her to organize the union, Abad explained, “I was the assistant supervisor, so people always came to me to air their grievances.”

The vote to unionize first failed by five, then by three votes.

Abad attributed the loss to workers’ fears that their contracts would not be renewed if they voted to organize a union.

“After the failure of the union vote, my contract was not renewed for another year,” she said.

Believing that the reason for her termination, after five years with the company, was her attempt to create a union, Abad filed a suit with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Abad won the lawsuit and, “I got my job back,” she said.

However, by then she had already become a Global Exchange spokesperson.

“I spoke in front of [Gap Co.’s president] about the horrible labor condition in which I worked,” she said.

“We are targeting Gap because Gap is a large garment producer in Saipan,” Abad said.

“Five shareholders stood up [after she spoke] and said, ‘we need to have a follow-up meeting on this,'” Abad said.

As a result of the meeting and her other efforts to shed light on the conditions at the Saipan factory, Abad said that she felt things had changed.

Workers began to work shorter hours and receive time and a half pay for overtime work. She also said that they received health insurance.

“I realized my personal strength to overcome injustice,” she said.

Abad said she will continue acting as spokesperson for the workers from her factory in another lawsuit which is now pending.

“If you make it seem like the problem’s over, no one’s going to keep looking,” she said. “We really need to continue to embarrass them.”

She praised the University for joining the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC).

“I’m so happy to find out that Cornell has signed on with the WRC,” she said.

The WRC, formed in October 1999 by United Students Against Sweatshops, was created as a monitoring organization of garment factories around the world.

Corporations who contract out to factories like the one Abad worked in are prohibited from the monitoring process.

“Cornell has been at the forefront of this movement,” said David Unger ’02, president of Cornell Students Against Sweatshops.

Abad offered advice to the students in the room who wanted to protest sweatshop labor.

“As a student … there’s a lot you can do,” she said, noting that college-age Americans are major consumers of apparel and other products.

“Bombard the Gap customer service line,” she said, and then gave out the phone number.

After her speech, audience members asked questions about both Abad’s particular experience and the anti-sweatshop movement in general.

Students asked about her longest shift — 48 hours without sleep and without leaving the factory — and about the hidden camera she wore for ABC News in 1998, while she still worked for Sako.

“The camera was in my underwear,” Abad said. The lens, which was about .5mm diameter, poked through one of the button holes in her shirt. ABC broadcast the footage nationally, as well as in Saipan.

“I’m proud of my role in fighting working conditions in Saipan,” she said.

Archived article by Maggie Frank