Indenture

September 17, 2002

THERE ARE ALWAYS going to be crummy jobs -- someone's got to empty the bedpans.

There's nothing wrong with that work, and nothing wrong with employers' turning to immigrants to fill those jobs.

But a system that allows poor and unskilled young men and women in Micronesia and the Marshall Islands to be duped into coming here under false pretenses and then chained to their workplaces by punitive debts and labor agreements is a system that is badly in need of change.

A three-part series by Walter F. Roche Jr. of The Sun and a colleague from the Orlando Sentinel, which ends today, details the exploitation of Pacific islanders by unscrupulous "body brokers" who typically lie to their recruits, charge them outrageous and never-ending fees, and then abandon them thousands of miles from home when their terms of indenture conclude.

Micronesians and Marshall Islanders are in a unique position to be taken advantage of. They are as poverty-stricken and as ignorant of their rights as any group of immigrants might be, but because of a long-term agreement with the United States they are legally free to enter this country and work here. That makes them easy bait for the brokers and appealing fodder for employers -- principally, nursing homes that can't find Americans willing to work the lowest-level jobs at something close to minimum wage.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is aware of their plight and has suggested that the recruiters may be in violation of a federal law that bans "human trafficking."

What the Micronesians and Marshall Islanders are understandably wary of is a quick fix that would make it harder for them to come to America. The cure for exploitation is not the removal of the exploited. Indeed, as today's installment makes clear, thousands of Pacific islanders have come here to work on their own initiative, running into all of the familiar hurdles that immigrants must face, but creating a healthy and productive community in the United States while at the same time ensuring a flow of dollars to families back home.

No, the cure for exploitation is to attack it head on. U.S. officials need to get serious about enforcing laws already on the books. Debt bondage is a criminal offense. Those who engage in it belong in prison.

Consider the words of one body broker whose clients have grown disillusioned with the workers he provides because they're so apt to abscond. "Now, most nursing home operators wouldn't take Micronesians if you gave them away," said Donald Finn.

Gave them away? Sounds like plantation days down South, doesn't it?

Don't misunderstand one thing in all of this: The nursing homes are not innocent parties. They've been entrusting the care of their elderly patients to workers who have been tricked into a form of virtual captivity. Maybe a better way to fill those jobs would be to pay a living wage.

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