Carmencita Abad says six years in the brutal conditions of a Saipan sweatshop still left her unprepared for the reception she got in another place: Representative Tom DeLay's Stafford office.
Abad, a garment worker-turned-human rights activist, arrived at the office on August 9 with Bob Buzzanco, a University of Houston history professor, and two Austin activists. She says she had an appointment with DeLay aide Ann Swisher to talk about the virtual indentured servitude of her former co-workers on the Pacific island of Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth.
Abad came to Texas as part of a campaign to rally for legislation intended to end dangerous job conditions and substandard wages for the largely Asian female workforce.
The native Filipina was told by the receptionist that the meeting was canceled. Surprised, Abad called Medea Benjamin, who helped arrange the appointment. She is director of the San Francisco-based Global Exchange watchdog group that sponsors Abad's U.S. talks and protests. Benjamin told them to stay put until the group could clear up the misunderstanding.
But the only meeting the visitors got was with two plainclothes police officers. The cops arrived asking to see their driver's licenses, alleging they had refused to leave the office. "No one had ever asked us to leave, though," Buzzanco says. Escorting them to the parking lot, the officers copied down their license plate numbers.
"They said they would arrest us if we didn't leave. They kicked us out like animals," Abad says.
DeLay press secretary Michael Scanlon says the visitors were belligerent. As it turned out, Swisher had called Global Exchange earlier that day. The group says she only left a message with someone not involved with the Saipan campaign, although Scanlon says she notified them of the cancellation.
Scanlon dismisses the incident as a "public relations gimmick" by Global Exchange. Swisher, he says, canceled on instructions from Washington. "She did not know they were part of a liberal, radical group, not a legitimate organization."
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But Abad is plenty legitimate, Benjamin says. "Here is this woman who spent six years in terrible conditions at a place where [DeLay] went to play golf.We're not naive in that we think we're going to change his mind. But we think it's important for him to hear a voice about Saipan that's different."
The House Majority Whip doesn't seem to want to listen. "We believe the people of Saipan are bright, hardworking people who should have every advantage for success," Scanlon says vaguely. DeLay opposes legislation that would set minimum wages, require tariffs on exports and ban manufacturers from using the coveted "Made in the USA" labels. Such measures would "strangle the free-market economy," Scanlon says.
Benjamin has requested an apology to Abad from DeLay's office for abruptly canceling and refusing to listen to opposing opinions.
DeLay's camp says it should be the other way around. "They should be giving an apology to the people of the 22nd District of Texas for the loss of time of the office staff who could have been working on substantive issues," Scanlon says.