Trapped in servitude far from their homes

Lured by promises, Pacific islanders come in search of education and employment, but instead find poverty, misery and threats.

September 15, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. and Willoughby Mariano | Walter F. Roche Jr. and Willoughby Mariano,SUN STAFF and ORLANDO SENTINEL

After journeying across an ocean and a continent - from the tiny Pacific isle of Chuuk to rural Ashburn, Ga. - Gloria Likiche was surprised to find herself working the graveyard shift at a nursing home, emptying bedpans for $5.50 an hour and eating so poorly that she felt she was starving.

This was neither the nurse training program nor the well-paid job that recruiters had talked so glowingly about when they lured her to America from her impoverished island.

"Recruiters told me, `You are going to become a nurse,'" she said. "I thought I would like to do that."

Accustomed to a casual lifestyle of cutting breadfruit from trees and wading into the surf to gather shrimp, Likiche found herself living in a dilapidated, unheated trailer, where she and co-workers subsisted on a meager diet, "boiling rice and vinegar and salt," her stomach burning from hunger. Within months, she'd lost 30 pounds, and her mother on the Micronesian island of Chuuk was sending care packages of cookies and crackers.

Likiche was 18 when she signed English-language legal contracts she didn't fully understand that indentured her to work for two years - not as a nurse, as she expected, but as a certified nursing assistant, the lowest rung on the health care ladder.

She earned only about $100 a week after deductions, she said, and if she had walked out before her contract expired, she would have been obligated to pay damages equivalent to months of wages. She felt she had been deceived, but knew that her chances of escape were slim.

"We're caught," she told her mother over the phone. They both broke down in tears.

A yearlong investigation by The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel has found that more than 2,000 Micronesians and Marshall islanders have been brought to the United States on one-way tickets and consigned to years of virtual servitude by a handful of small-time entrepreneurs who exploit a little-known 16-year-old Compact of Free Association that allows the island residents to settle and work here without visas.

These "body brokers," as they are known in the trade, collect fees of up to $5,500 from employers such as nursing homes and Florida amusement parks for delivering each worker who signs a one- or two-year contract to do menial, low-paying jobs that Americans seldom will. Brokers or employers sometimes deduct fees for housing, transportation and unexplained service charges from workers' pay.

A recent U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service memorandum states that such contracts may violate a federal law banning "human trafficking," the term used by governments to describe modern-day slavery, a practice condemned by the United States and the United Nations.

The document cites clauses of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 that prohibit workers from being held in "debt bondage" and "involuntary servitude" through "abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process," crimes punishable by up to 20 years in prison and fines of $5,000 to $250,000 for each offense.

But efforts to reform the recruiting process as part of negotiations to extend the compact have been ignored by the chief U.S. negotiator, who is eager to continue leasing a missile test range in the Marshall Islands. Island officials say they won't be "bullied" into impeding the flow of residents to the United States.

For islanders who leave, getting home can be difficult. When their contracts expire, many find themselves stranded in America without money to fly home, even though some contracts guarantee a return ticket. Brokers such as Donald Finn of Bonita Springs, Fla., who pioneered the business in the late 1990s and imported Likiche, have avoided this obligation - a typical fare is $1,500 - by dissolving their companies or declaring bankruptcy.

"You've got these people indentured - they can't leave," said Vernon Briggs Jr., a professor of labor economics at Cornell University in New York. "It's not surprising that employers will do it if the government allows it. ... The question is whether government should be encouraging this sort of thing. It doesn't really improve the lives of the people who take the jobs."

Some of the workers are doubly indentured. First, they promise to pay the broker up to $2,500 in damages if they quit before they fulfill the contract. A second, similar contract signed with their employer can obligate them to pay a penalty to the nursing home. Finn recruited for an Iowa facility that made workers sign contracts requiring them to pay damages of $3,750 if they left prematurely.

Workers can thus be liable for up to $6,250, a crippling sum for those who earn so little. In addition to damages, at least two workers who quit even had to pay a broker's legal fees as part of a settlement.

And some of this commerce is subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Under the U.S. Workforce Investment Act, formerly known as the Job Training Partnership Act, two brokers have received grants of $252 per worker to screen and train them for jobs in America.


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