The Multinational Monitor


B E H I N D   T H E   L I N E S

Martu Battle RTZ

Resting their hopes on a 1992 Australian High Court decision, the Martu people of Western Australia are fighting to gain control of thousands of square kilometers of land. They are struggling with Australia's largest mining company, CRA, the 49-percent-owned affiliate of the British mining giant RTZ.

The outcome of this conflict will signal whether Aboriginal rights have really been expanded in the wake of the landmark Mabo decision (named after the principal plaintiff), which first established in Australian common law the existence of Native title to indigenous lands.

Fiction and Reality

Prior to the Mabo decision, Australian common law relating to Aboriginal lands rested on the concept of terra nullius, the fiction that Australia had been unoccupied when Captain Cook first set foot on Australian soil in 1770.

While individual states had passed laws relating to Aboriginal land rights, there had been no national legislation on the issue. In the mid-1980s, Bob Hawke's Labor government promised national land rights legislation, but the administration quickly jettisoned the promise after the Australian Mining Industry Council, fearful that the change would harm mining opportunities, campaigned against the proposal.

In 1982, Eddie Mabo and four other Natives from Murray Island in the Torres Strait (between the Australian mainland and Papua New Guinea) initiated a High Court action to establish that their ownership rights over the island had never been extinguished and therefore continued to exist. Ten years later, after three of the five plaintiffs had died, the High Court delivered a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. The High Court decision declared that the islanders were "entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of Murray Island."

The decision had far-reaching national repercussions. After a year and a half of national debate - during which time the mining industry attempted to whip up hysteria about Native land claims-the Parliament passed a Native Title Act, in December 1993. Under this Act, all freehold, pastoral and residential leases threatened by the Mabo decision were validated and any Native title over such lands was extinguished. Mining leases, however, do not extinguish Native title, which will run alongside the leases until they are renewed or expire. A fund will be set up to compensate Aborigines for the loss of Native title and to acquire land. Aborigines will have a right to negotiate but no veto over development on Native title land. Tribunals will arbitrate in cases of dispute. State governments can override tribunal decisions "in the state or national interest."

The state most affected by the Mabo decision is Western Australia, where a large number of Aborigines still have a "close and continuing association" with the land and there is no Land Rights Act in place. The Western Australia government has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the whole idea of Native title, and recently passed its own bill which would prevent Aborigines in the state from gaining land rights. The Aborigines are caught in a state-federal power struggle, with the mining companies doing their best to play the two levels of government off against each other.

The Martu Claim

The resolution of the state-federal conflict will have tremendous consequences for the Martu in their battle with CRA.

The Martu, a group of closely-related peoples living in the area of Rudall River in Western Australia, were among the last people in Australia to come into contact with white society. By the 1940s, however, white settlers built mining communities on the fringes of the Western Desert, and Aborigines migrated toward them. Those Native people living in the desert moved into government-controlled settlements and missions where they became dependent on state unemployment benefits - or "sitting-down money," as they called it.

In the early 1980s, the Aboriginal people decided to move back to their lands. They wanted to reconfirm their ties to the land and bring up their children in an environment free from the alcoholism and despair of the mining camps and shantytowns. They also believed that living on their land was the only way they could properly protect it. In 1981, about 150 people established the community of Punmu; in 1984, 80 people set up the Parnngurr cotnmunity; and other outstations have since been established. Today, at least 300 people live in the area and hundreds more have cultural ties to it.

In 1977, the government declared part of the area a national park.

In 1985, however, CRA Exploration discovered uranium around the Rudall River area. CRA has since taken out exploration licenses on virtually the entire southern half of the park.

In response to Aboriginal and environmentalist pressures, the state government created a mining "exclusion zone" in 1987, banning exploration in 7,500 square kilometers of the park and stopping new exploration leases in another 65,000 square kilometers. These protections eased the Martu fears for their land.

This time, the promises only lasted five years. In March 1993, the newly-elected state government of Richard Court lifted all bans on mining in Rudall River National Park without consulting the Martu The Minister for Mines said that he felt "no obligation" to inform the Aborigines about it the decision, despite their roughly 10,000 year-old claim to the land.

Over the past year, the Western Australia government has refused all requests from the Martu for negotiation. And in an attempt to undermine the Martu's claim, the state government passed the Land (Titles and Traditional Usage) Act, which extinguishes all Native title throughout the state.

In September 1993, in response to the state government's refusal to negotiate, the Martu lodged a Mabo-style Supreme Court claim for Native title to their lands. The Martu claim they are not opposed to all mining; they simply insist that it must he under their control. Only then, they say, can they be confident that it can go ahead without destroying them in the process.

"Mr. Court has never come to our table and spoken to us. ... I say to him to `come and sit down,"' says Teddy Biljabu, chair of the Western Desert Puntukurnuparna (Land Council), "We will meet you on the land and talk," he adds. "Parliament doesn't own this land, we do.... Mr. Court will only be in power a certain time, but the land will be Martu land forever."?

- Jonathan Mazower
Jonathan Mayor is a campaigns
officer for Survival International.

Worker Rights Unravelled

Young Shin Came to the Bay Area from Korea in 1975, several Years after San Francisco clothing designer Jessica McClintock launched what came to be a multi-million dollar business with $5,000. For 20 years, the women doggedly pursued careers that put them on a collision course.

They collided in the fall of 1992, when Shin - a lawyer who started Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) - took up the cause of 12 sweatshop seamstresses. The women had been stiffed by a bankrupt contractor who worked for clothing manufacturers, including Jessica McClintock, Inc.

With AIWA's help, the women targeted the dress designer for redress, a struggle that escalated into a national boycott of McClintock dresses with the Gunne Sax, Jessica McClintock and Scott McClintock labels. -Now in its second year, the stand-off appears to be nowhere near resolution. The seamstresses are after more than paychecks; they want to wean the $ 38 billion women's apparel industry from its dependence on abusive labor practices.

Labor law violations are common in the 22,000 U.S. contract sweatshops that chum out clothes for almost 1,000 major garment manufacturers. The U.S. Labor Department estimates that more than half of the 2,000 garment shops in the San Francisco Bay Area violate federal wage and hour laws. Throughout the United States, tens of thousands of seamstresses work more than 60 hours a week sewing piece work that pays less than minimum wage.

This arrangement benefits clothing manufacturers, who exploit unlawfully cheap labor while passing potential legal hassles on to contractors, many of whom started out as garment workers. "The people reaping the benefit are not responsible at all," says Vivian Chang, an AIWA organizer.

What helped focus attention on the industry's dirty secrets were routine contracts that McClintock, Inc., and other manufacturers signed with Lucky Sewing Company of Oakland. After Lucia's luck ran out in early 1992, it filed for bankruptcy, leaving a dozen seamstresses with $15,000 in bounced paychecks.

Similar scenes of cheated and abused garment workers have been reported recently in Southern California, Boston, Maryland and New York City:

  • The National Labor Relations Board cited the Performance Team Freight System, Inc., of Compote, California, for 87 labor law violations in January 1993. The complaint filed by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (IGLOO) resulted from the garment factory's attempt to bust a union-organizing drive. The most serious charge was that an unknown gunman threatened the life of an organizer in front of dozens of witnesses. The union also won an injunction against local police, whom it charged with unlawful arrest of organizers.
  • Philip Hunan enlisted the help of the IGLOO and the Boston Economic Development and Industrial Corp. in opening a union dressmaking factory in 1992. Within a year, however, he opened a second, nonunionized shop. Workers in the first shop lost their jobs in April 1993 as Huang shifted his business to the nonunion shop. Workers in both shops said they were being paid less than minimum wage.
  • James L. Leuthe shut down Garrett Manufacturing in Deer Park, Maryland, after the ILGWU won a $500,000 judgment against him for failing to pay into a benefit fund for his garment company's workers.
  • About 20 garment workers in New York's Chinatown picketed contractor Swanky Fashions in January 1993, demanding $40,000 in back pay. Swanky owner Thomas Tam had closed his shop a month earlier. He reopened several blocks away, replacing most of his old workers - to whom he owed money - with new hires.

What distinguishes the Lucky case from so many others is the decision of the victims to leapfrog the contractor to pursue high-profile manufacturers who cash in on sweatshop abuses while disavowing any responsibility for them.

The American Apparel Manufacturers Association in Arlington, Virginia, has a different view of the contractor system. "All of our members make every effort to deal with contractors who deal with their workers ethically, legally and fairly," says association president G. Stewart Boswell, "though they don't succeed in every case." Asked what steps manufacturers take to screen contractors, Boswell - who said he knew nothing of the McClintock case - says, "There are no general industry guidelines."

To tarnish this image-driven industry, AIWA is using picket lines and full-page advertisements in the New York Times to try to associate fashion designers with the plight of their surrogate workforce. Manufacturers have denounced these tactics, saying AIWA unfairly singled out McClintock. McClintock, whose company did not return calls for this article, called the boycott a "blatant shakedown" in her own ad in the Times last November.

AIWA acknowledges that McClintock, whose company has reported gross annual sales of $145 million, is no different from hundreds of other clothing manufacturers. In fact, she has been more responsive than others might be.

McClintock, Inc. donated $24,000 to the Northern California Chinese Garment Contractors Association, a trade group led by several McClintock contractors, to distribute to the 12 seamstresses in February 1994. To receive the money, however, the women had to agree that it was a "charitable donation" rather than back pay. Five of them accepted; the other seven refused to take "charity."

In February, the company said it was distributing the money the dissidents refused to local Asian American organizations. One of them, the Asian Women's Shelter, returned a$1,000 check, denouncing it as a ploy to divide the community.

That McClintock dresses are made in the United States at all bears some explanation. he U.S. apparel industry has dropped from 1.4 million to less than 1 million production jobs in the past 20 years, transplanting jobs to places with cheaper labor. Jobs are being exported because making garments is a labor-intensive process that resists a technological fix. Soft fabric must be fed into machines by hand. And automated mass production is well suited to long runs of identical goods but not to the flighty whims of fashion.

Yet the most expensive garments that reflect the very latest fashions require speedy contractor turnarounds. Shops producing these high-priced items tend to be located near the fashion designers in such spots as New York and California. Trend-setting designers and manufacturers thrive on a symbiotic proximity to large pools ofimmigrant women, who have a rudimentary knowledge of English and of their rights as employees.

Unfortunately, little of what's paid for top-dollar fashions trickles down to sweatshop workers. Before launching their boycott, the 12 aggrieved seamstresses took a field trip to a San Francisco boutique where they were shocked to see McClintock dresses, that they said they had been paid $5 to sew, selling for $175.

Accounts by the 12 women of the work conditions at Lucky are consistent with those gleaned from a survey of 166 Bay Area seamstresses conducted by AIWA and with reports from sweatshops nationwide.

To make ends meet, seamstresses worked 10 to 12 hour days, six or seven days a week. Yet they did not receive overtime pay, and their piece-work wages rarely amounted to the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour. In order to pay the bills on such wages, many seamstresses take cut fabric home to sew. This illicit practice opens the door to child labor and transfers utility and machine depreciation costs from contractors to workers.

Fierce competition in the industry, the I L G W U, AIWA and other activists say, places intense pressure on contractors to put such an illegal squeeze on workers. They say this situation won't change until manufacturers are held legally responsible for the labor violations from which they benefit.

California legislation to make garment manufacturers and contractors jointly liable for fines resulting from violations has been vetoed by both Governor Pete Wilson and his predecessor, George Deukmejian. This year, garment worker advocates are trying again to pressure Wilson and the California Assembly.

Wilson is unlikely to sign the bill this time either, but California is still more likely to pass such legislation than the federal government, according to Lora Jo Foo, a labor attorney with the Asian Law Caucas in San Francisco. "Maybe with all this publicity we will have a chance," she says.

With the arrival of the spring prom and wedding seasons, AIWA is trying to maintain pressure by organizing boycotts and pickets at stores that sell McClintock dresses in large cities around the country.

- Andrew Wheat

Table of Contents