The identities of hundreds of foreign garment workers alleging they were intimidated into working unpaid overtime on the Western Pacific island of Saipan, a U.S. Commonwealth, will remain confidential under a ruling today from a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The ruling allows a federal lawsuit filed by the workers to move forward against 22 Saipan garment factories under the Fair Labor Standards Act, reversing an earlier lower court ruling. Clothing manufactured on Saipan is sold throughout the U.S. by many major retail chains including The Gap, Target and J.C. Penney.

From the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court Opinion:

"We hold that where, as here, the named plaintiffs in a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action demonstrate that they have an objectively reasonable fear of extraordinarily severe retaliation, they may conceal their identities from defendants."

"On numerous occasions, plaintiffs were interrogated about, warned against, and threatened for making complaints about their working conditions by defendants and recruiting agents. Threats ran the gamut from termination and blacklisting, to deportation, arrest, and imprisonment."

More than 25,000 workers may be affected, most of them recruited from poor regions of China, Bangladesh and other Asian countries. "These courageous women risked everything by joining the lawsuit, and the Court found that they have well-founded fears of firing, deportation, and imprisonment in their home countries if their names are disclosed at this threshold stage of litigation. We are tremendously relieved that the Court has protected them from retaliation," said Michael Rubin of Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Rubin & Demain in San Francisco, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs.

"This decision represents an important step in our continuing efforts to obtain social justice for the garment workers of Saipan. As a result of today's ruling, they can utilize the American courts without fear of punishment or retaliation," said Al Meyerhoff of Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach, another lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

The workers faced the prospect of being fired by the garment factories and having to pay huge "recruitment fee" debts if their names were disclosed in the suit. "There is a legitimate and powerful fear of reprisal," continued Meyerhoff. In the original filing of the suit a year ago, the workers were listed under John and Jane Doe pseudonyms.

Attorneys for the factories, attempting to force disclosure of the workers' identities, had won an earlier lower-court ruling that dismissed the claims of all workers who refused to shed their anonymity. The plaintiffs' attorneys then filed an emergency expedited appeal with the Ninth Circuit.

The complaint by the workers alleges that they were forced to work "off the clock" to meet unrealistic quotas, or were required to "donate" hours to the factories, without being paid overtime for these additional hours. In many cases, workers say they must work 12-hour days, seven days a week, in unsafe, unclean conditions that flagrantly violate U.S. labor laws. They are seeking payment of all overtime and other wages due.

The same group of workers has also brought a class action lawsuit in Hawaii against these same factories and some of the largest U.S. garment retailers, alleging a conspiracy to indenture the workers and subject them to working and living conditions that violate U.S. and international law.

In the last five years, the Saipan garment industry has been cited more than 1,000 times for violations of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, many of which involved the possibility of death or serious injury.

The industry employs thousands of foreign workers, primarily young women from China and other Asian countries, who say they are required to sign "shadow contracts" forcing them to waive basic human rights, including the right to speak freely, to associate with others, and to have children. The workers claim they were forced to pay huge "recruitment fees" to obtain jobs in Saipan, as high as $10,000, creating an indentured status that has been illegal in the U.S. since the Civil War.