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Sew Wrong: Women overworked in Tia Lessin's 'Behind the Labels.'

Stock in Trade

The second annual Reel Work May Day Labor Film Festival gets a bonus this year, as the producer of Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine' weighs in with a documentary of her own

By Mike Connor

Ah, Saipan! A tropical island paradise, commonwealth of the United States and one of over 2,000 small islands in Micronesia, Saipan is, according to its tourist bureau, "the fastest-growing island in Micronesia, with golf courses and resorts popping up everywhere."

Of course, they don't mention the sweatshops.

"It's a schizophrenic place," says Tia Lessin, whose documentary film Behind the Labels appears at Kresge Town Hall on April 30 as part of the Reel Work May Day Labor Film Festival. "It's a beautiful island in the middle of the Pacific, with white sand beaches, coral reefs and beautiful hotels. The dark side is the garment industry; oftentimes the factories are in the middle of the jungle, and the women never see the light of day. It's the opposite of vacation for them."

Lessin's film gives voice to some of the thousands of Chinese and Filipino women she says work under harsh conditions on the island in what amounts to indentured servitude. Commissioned by the Oxygen Network as a two-part series about women and human rights, Lessin, who was a producer on Michael Moore's documentaries Bowling for Columbine and The Big One, says the film was an anomaly, "particularly given that some of their advertisers were some of the companies we were trying to expose."

Retailers such as the Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, J. Crew, JC Penny, Walmart, Sears, Liz Claiborne, and Abercrombie & Fitch all contract work out to factories in Saipan, the main advantages being the lower minimum wage in the commonwealth ($3.05) and the lack of tariffs or quotas due to the state's commonwealth status. Recruiters in China and the Philippines charge the workers thousands of dollars for the opportunity to work on Saipan. Most workers go deep into debt just getting to the island, leaving them little choice but to abide cockroach- and rat-infested barracks, curfews, abuse and even the notorious "payless paydays," when payday comes but you don't get your check.

Work Prints

Behind the Labels is just one of several films at the festival that use cinematic craft to fight the good fight for workers around the world. All in all, Reel Work highlights eight labor-oriented films in an effort to increase community awareness of the history and culture of the labor movement.

The organizers are sticking with last year's successful format of donation-based admission, bringing the filmmakers into town to discuss their films whenever possible, and inviting special guest speakers involved in the labor movement.

The festival kicks off on Sunday, April 27, with Ken Loach's newest film, The Navigators (Nickelodeon Theatre, 12pm), about British rail workers struggling against privatization in the 1990s. The cast includes former British railway workers, and the screenplay was written by a longtime veteran of the British railway system. UCSC assistant professor Paul Ortiz will lead a discussion after the film.

The festival continues at the Cabrillo College Watsonville Center Forum with Mother Trucker: The Diana Kilmury Story, about a truck-driving woman's successful fight to stamp out corruption in her union. Immediately afterwards is Los Trabajadores, a short film documenting the lives of immigrant day laborers in Austin, Texas.

On Tuesday, April 29, the festival jumps over to the Community Television Studio for a screening of On Strike for Respect: UC Clericals and Lecturers' Strike of 2002, featuring 30 minutes of live footage of the statewide strike. Then comes a dose of comic relief in the form of Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda starring in Nine to Five.

Wednesday, April 30, is Women's Night at Kresge Town Hall. Tia Lessin will present and speak about Behind the Labels along with Chie Abad, a former garment worker in Saipan. Vivian Price will be on hand to present her film, Hammering It Out, a documentary about the Century Freeway Women's Employment Project in Los Angeles.

The festival concludes with a gala celebration and screening of John Sayle's Matewan at the Del Mar Theatre on May 1 at 7pm. Gary Fritz of the United Mine Workers of America will lead a discussion after the film, which is centered around a 1920 miner's revolt in West Virginia.


The Reel Work 2nd Annual May Day Labor Film Festival runs from Sunday, April 27, through Thursday, May 1. For more info, visit www.reelwork.org.

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From the April 23-30, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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