After having been branded as a “slave island,” the Northern Marianas may find it hard to save its ailing tourism economy if the CNMI government fails to hire a public relations firm immediately to counter the attracks and save its tarnished image in the international community.
Dave M. Sablan, chairman of the board, said he has received inquiries from Japan and the United States asking about the much-publicized $1 billion class suit filed against U.S. buyers and garment manufacturers in the CNMI.
The lawsuits filed in federal courts in California, New York and Saipan accused manufacturers and mainland-based buyers of labor violations against contract workers from China, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
While owners of garment firms in the CNMI have denied the charges, Sablan said those who were behind the filing of the lawsuit already succeeded in destroying the image of the CNMI.
According to Sablan, the lawsuit has undermined all efforts being undertaken by the MVA to save the half-a-billion-dollar tourism industry which has been battered by Asia’s financial crisis.
“If we don’t move fast, I’m afraid the millions of dollars we’ve spent to promote the CNMI will just go down the drain,” he said.
The story was carried in two of the most widely-circulated newspapers in Japan — the Yomiuri and Asahi Shimbun. He noted that the negative publicity came at a time when the CNMI is trying its best to increase visitor arrivals in Japan, the island’s main source of tourists.
“It paints a very negative picture of the CNMI, an image that will haunt us if not immediately corrected,” said Sablan.
According to Sablan, relatives and friends in the U.S. have called him up telling him that they have been confronted about the presence of modern day slaves in the alleged sweatshops in the CNMI.
MVA recently hired Tokyo-based Dentsu, Young & Rubicam to help promote the Northern Marianas and get back its lost market share in Japan. Arrivals from Japan have drastically declined since Asia’s financial crisis began in July 1997.
The Saipan Chamber of Commerce has also expressed concern on the negative effect on the image of the lawsuit on the CNMI saying it may turn away prospective investors.
Leaders in the CNMI claim that the case was politically motivated since it was filed a day before the start of the 902 consultation talks of the CNMI panel with the U.S. government representatives.
As expected, the talks bogged down after both sides failed to reconcile their differences on issues surrounding minimum wage and immigration. According to Edward B. Cohen, U.S. President Clinton’s special representative, the federal government will file a new bill in the U.S. Congress that will federalize minimum wage and immigration policies
However, Sablan believes that instead of a federal takeover, the U.S. can just assist the CNMI in carrying out reforms in customs, immigration and labor through its inter-agency personnel action program.
“The present situation only shows that the U.S. also failed in its job to prepare us when the CNMI became a commonwealth,” he said.