Jirapha Ekmart

She’s a friend! Jirapha Ekmart by name, but everyone calls her Duke. (Tuk if you’re Thai). We met shortly after our arrival on Saipan to work at the Northern Marianas College.
It was the night of the Loy Kratong, a Thai celebration in which thanks are given to the “soul of all water”. One of my colleagues was introducing us to the varied and colorful customs and cultures of Saipan. Several of the faculty members of the college who had Thai wives or friends told us to not miss this ceremony.
The United International Corporation (UIC), one of the largest garment manufacturers on Saipan, had given the Thai garment workers the day off for the festivities. Many had spent much of the day making small floats of flowers, banana trees, palm leaves, incense and candles to honor the water and to ask for continued good life. These were not parade floats to be driven in a parade, but real floating floral offerings. My brother had told me about witnessing the same impressive ceremony many years earlier on the river in Bangkok.
About 200 yards from the front of UIC is a beautiful beach on the Philippine Sea where the workers frequently picnic and enjoy their free time. This was to be the final destination for the festivities tonight. Some informal prayers were offered to Buddha at the large shrine provided by the factory. With much singing, and Moon, the apparent leader, leading the procession with a drum (an empty “ship cracker” tin container), we crossed Beach road with about an extra hundred Chinese girls tailing along to watch. Then the procession walked down a lane past the San Antonio Elementary School to the ocean. Firecrackers and fireworks were set off and the candles and incense on the floats were ignited. The hundred or so floats illuminated the entire beach and the fragrance of the flowers and incense filled the air. The singing continued while everyone waded into the water to launch his or her boat. One of the workers had heard that some people from the college would be coming and had made an extra kratong, which she gave to my wife. The worker’s name was Tuk and a friendship was begun. My wife Liz was told to say “Thank you for the good things from the water” and to then to launch her little boat. A gentle breeze and cooperating tide carried the floating offerings along with the scent of the incense out toward the reef about a quarter-mile offshore. It was to be very good luck if your candles stayed lit until out of sight. We all watched intently to see that our kratong would determine our good luck.
Our new friend Duke, although very shy, had been struggling to learn English and was trying hard to understand the questions we were asking about the ceremony. She was so determined to answer and to try to help that we invited her to have dinner the next evening at our apartment for a typical American meal of spaghetti and meatballs. It was the first of many visits. Liz and Duke had sewing in common. Duke was an expert at sewing and was fascinated by Liz’s computerized sewing machine. They spent hours together sharing ideas and techniques learned from years of combined knowledge. Each had different training, skills, and experience but have much in common.
When we left Saipan a year later, we were all good friends and visited and shared many meals, birthdays, beach and hiking outings, and festivities together. Duke taught us many Thai delicacies and we showed her how to cook a few American meals. Her understanding of English had become quite good and she is now able to communicate very well. (She has also learned Chinese in her work place – another very valuable asset.) At parting, we exchanged gifts and tears at the airport as we returned to our farm in upstate New York. It would be another year and a half before we were to meet again.
Many times during the next seventeen months my wife and I read and listened with distaste about the conditions in the garment factories of Saipan. I was regularly quizzed by friends and acquaintances who knew I had worked in the CNMI about the deplorable working conditions reported in the local papers and on television. Our displeasure was over the misinformation that was being written about the factories. They were being portrayed as inhuman sweatshops where the workers are virtually imprisoned as slave labor or indentured servants with substandard living conditions, poor food, and almost no wages. This is far from the truth in at least the majority of factories and certainly in all of the factories I visited. This is “yellow” journalism, based on emotionalism, stirred up by presenting only exceptional cases, distorted views, and in some instances, experiences based on conditions and stories from many years ago.
In the case of Duke, although somewhat unique, it clearly illustrates the potential long- range benefits for workers who have goals, ambition, and a good work ethic. When Duke came to Saipan from Thailand she was destitute and destined to a life of poverty in Udorn Thani, a city in Northeastern Thailand. Her husband had left her shortly after the birth of a baby daughter and left no money for support. The future was bleak for her and her daughter. She was lucky enough to have a job but it paid less than a hundred dollars a month. It was barely enough to support herself, her young child, and her aging parents. She chose to take the opportunity to work in the garment industry in Saipan.
During her five years working at UIC, she has been more than able to support her daughter and parents back in Thailand. Duke told me with great pride that she had saved enough money to build a $15,500 house for her family in her hometown. Modestly she stated that it is a lovely house but not as nice as our New York farmhouse. By leaving her village and entering this diverse culture she has learned to speak Chinese and English and has met people from other countries and ethnic backgrounds at the same time making friends from around the world. She has been able to socialize with some of the intellectual and influential people of Saipan. She is able to dress well and carry herself with dignity and pride at all social gatherings. She has returned recently on vacation to her hometown with the transportation being paid by the company. She would never have had these opportunities and experiences in her hometown. These skills and experiences are the fruit of her hard work and determination. She has worked many optional hours of overtime to get ahead and to save money for the luxuries she enjoys. It is her choice.
Overtime is a target with the critics of the garment industry in the CNMI. Because someone like Duke chooses to work hard and to work extra time for her advancement, the factories are often portrayed as slave drivers. It is her decision as an intelligent adult, she is happy if work and overtime are available. Her language skills, experience, and work ethic undoubtedly will soon earn her a promotion. Her work ethic is common to all successful people in all occupations at all levels.
We had the opportunity, to visit the same factories the mainstream media 20/20 television crew had filmed the day before. We were welcomed to visit any site we chose in any garment factory. We chose two factories, UIC because Duke worked there and Winners because of its proximity. They showed us the sites the 20/20 camera crews chose to televise. Instead of filming the spotless cafeterias, the comfortable barracks, the employee library, or the recreation center, they chose to set up their cameras outside of the factory property and shoot their footage through the alleyways and garbage pickup area through a chain link fence into the interior. This photographic illusion is deliberately designed to make it look like a concentration camp and undoubtedly will be reported as such. In reality the fence is to keep out thieves and intruders for insurance risks, not to keep the workers prisoners. Duke and the other workers could leave the factory and barracks residences area any time they chose. They did not take footage of the workers measuring and cutting material, assembling garments, sewing, inspecting, ironing, etc… To me, an older male professional, it looked like repetitious, boring work, yet every man and woman had a smile of pride for me when I aimed the camera in their direction. With several thousand men and women working in Saipan’s garment manufacturing industry there are bound to be some unhappy and troubled workers, there are bound to be some genuine abuses of power by supervisors. This occurs in all situations where large numbers of people are employed. It is not acceptable or advantageous for any industry to tolerate these situations and every attempt is being made to insure that a clean safe environment is provided for all workers.
My ax to grind is the distortion of fact by the press. They want to fabricate a story that shows a cruel unfeeling industry. They therefore force the facts to fit their preconceived script or storyboard. They want to portray all of the workers as victims. Much of this is politically motivated so that the government officials can then demonstrate how much they “care” about the victims the politicians and the media have created. They must create pain before they can “feel your pain”. This gives them a feeling of moral superiority over an industry responding in a positive manner to the criticisms of the past while progressing steadily to retool for the future with a genuine concern for the workers as well as the interests of the consumers and the stockholders.
While the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association is striving to make these industries into showplaces, there are still areas for improvement. But, there is probably no worker who has not seen a recent improvement in his or her working conditions as a result of the industry’s growth. Equally, all of the workers have certainly experienced an increase in their personal standard of living as a result of their work in Saipan. Duke, like many other young women and men from Thailand, China, the Philippines, Chuuk, and other Asian countries, unaware of the current political climate in the United States, would not understand how they could be called “victims”.