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A Saipan-based garment factory that makes clothing for several American retailers and other companies was sued by the U.S. government for allegedly discriminating against employees based on their nationality. Sako Corp. failed to renew its employment contracts with long-standing Filipino, Thai and Bangladeshi garment workers and hired Chinese workers in their place, according to the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Company officials did not immediately a return phone call seeking comment. The EEOC’s Honolulu office found about 100 workers lost their jobs to younger and less experienced workers from China, most of whom were women in their late teens to early 20s, said Wilfredo Tungol, an EEOC trial attorney in Honolulu. “It doesn’t make sense to replace an experienced sewer for someone who is inexperienced and in some cases doesn’t really know how to sew,” he said. “In some cases, they had train these new workers.” Sako cited business reasons for the change. Tungol said the reason the company hired only Chinese employees will come forward as the case proceeds. “We think there’s a hidden agenda by the corporation,” he said. “That’s all I can say about it.” Most of the former employees were paid $3.15 per hour, 10 cents above the minimum wage of $3.05 per hour. Saipan is the capital of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is self-governing and sets its own minimum wage and immigration laws. The majority of people in the commonwealth are non-citizen workers and are employed in the garment industry. “In view of the important role of the immigrant workers in the CNMI and the U.S., it is critical that we enforce the federal law,” EEOC district director Joan Ehrlich said in a statement. “Employment opportunity should (be) based on merit and experience, not nation of origin.” It was the third EEOC lawsuit filed against Sako in recent years. The earlier lawsuits were for alleged pregnancy discrimination and retaliation. Both were settled in 2000 with the company agreeing to training programs to be monitored by the EEOC for three years, a term which ended before the latest alleged violations. Sako was also one of several Saipan garment factories and major clothing retailers sued by garment workers and several advocacy groups. The settlement in 2003 created a $20 million fund to pay back wages to 30,000 workers and developed an independent monitoring system to ensure compliance with strict labor standards. The Northern Mariana Islands, with a population of 51,000, is located about 3,800 miles southwest of Hawaii. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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