Money, migration and U.S. missiles

Compact: As a 16-year-old agreement nears expiration, negotiators' chief concerns are U.S. aid, emigration and an island test range rather than human rights.

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

A detailed proposal by the U.S. Department of Labor to regulate the traffic in indentured workers from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands was shunted aside in recent talks to extend the Compact of Free Association, after the chief U.S. negotiator ignored it and island officials said they would not be "bullied" by the United States.

A State Department memorandum described discussions on the 16-year-old agreement that regulates relations between the United States and the island nations as "rancorous," according to sources familiar with the closed-door talks.

The memo said it was "folly" to link labor reforms to the billions of dollars in U.S. aid that keeps the island economies afloat, the sources said, because that could sidetrack the successful conclusion of the talks before the financial aid provisions of the compact expire on Sept. 30.

The Labor Department proposal would bar recruiters, known in the trade as "body brokers," from requiring workers to sign contracts making them liable for damages if they quit before their contracts expire. It also would require recruiters to register with the island governments, which would share the information with U.S. officials. And recruiters would have to give workers detailed information about wages, living accommodations and length of their assignments.

"We're going to resolve these issues, but we're not going to have our arms twisted," said Howard Hills, an American who negotiates for the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Jim Stovall, counsel to the negotiating team for the Micronesian government, said island officials are willing to work with U.S. officials on the recruiting problems but they oppose any attempt to link recruiting reforms with financial issues.

"The Marshall Islands government welcomes the Labor Department proposal," said Kristina Stege, first secretary of the Marshall Islands Embassy in Washington, adding: "It's not really a compact negotiation issue."

However, some U.S. officials think it is.

"The department hopes that there would be some meaningful progress on the issue of worker abuse before there is any final decision on funding," a senior Labor Department official said.

That position has gained support from other federal agencies. A U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service memo, distributed to federal agencies after the latest round of negotiations in Honolulu, said recruiters' conduct may violate a federal law banning "human trafficking," or modern-day slavery, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each offense.

However, sources said that the chief U.S. negotiator, Albert V. Short, a Virginia businessman acting on special assignment for the State Department, views the Labor Department proposal as a distraction from his principal aim: extension of the lease on the Ronald Reagan Missile Range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. military conducts tests. The development of an anti-ballistic missile system has been a major priority of the Bush administration.

Short, a former Army colonel, declined to comment.

"They think that they have leverage," Hills said of proponents of the reform plan. "But that is wrong. They are squandering their leverage."

The safety valve

Island officials, who have long viewed emigration as a safety valve in dealing with poverty, strenuously oppose any measure that would impede the free flow of their citizens to the United States. Under the compact, citizens of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands have a permanent right to "enter, work and establish residence as a nonimmigrant in the United States."

With the compact's aid provisions due to expire Sept. 30, negotiators face a tight deadline to come up with a new financial package. The islands are pressing for a deal that would ensure that U.S. aid is included in the budget for the next fiscal year, which will be drawn up this fall. Congress would then have to ratify any agreement.

The latest U.S. proposals would provide about $2.3 billion for Micronesia and about $1.1 billion for the Marshall Islands over the next 20 years.

Supporters of labor reforms say that unless recruitment regulations are linked to the financial aid package now being negotiated, the United States will lose any chance to eliminate abuses.

Hills said he believes the effort to regulate recruiters is part of an effort by some U.S. officials in several agencies who are bent on undermining the compact.

Stovall said the team from the Federated States of Micronesia doesn't have the legal authority to negotiate changes in nonexpiring provisions of the compact.

Since the agreement went into effect in 1986, the United States has provided about $2 billion in direct assistance and $700 million through job training and other federal programs.

In 1998, the last year for which figures are available, U.S. aid accounted for 54 percent of government revenue in Micronesia and for 68 percent in the Marshall Islands.

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