U.S., islands probe abuses in labor recruiting

Workers expected training and high-paying jobs

September 24, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A week after disclosures that "body brokers" were collecting up to $5,500 for each Pacific islander they deliver under contract to American nursing homes and amusement parks, officials of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands say they are investigating the situation and are eager to work with the U.S. government to stamp out abuses.

Leo A. Falcam, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, has appointed special representatives, including Justice Secretary Paul McIlreath, to work with U.S. officials on labor-recruitment issues, according to Jesse B. Marehalau, the country's ambassador to the United States.

Officials of the Republic of the Marshall Islands Embassy in Washington said their government was reviewing its laws to determine whether changes are needed to prevent abuses by recruiting firms. They also expressed willingness to work with U.S. officials on the issue.

"We are working actively with U.S. authorities to investigate past abuses and to develop ways in which future occurrences can be prevented," Marehalau said in a statement, made in response to a series of articles published Sept. 15-17 by The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel. The articles described the plight of thousands of Micronesians and Marshallese, many of whom were lured to the United States expecting to attend nursing school but ended up in low-paying jobs emptying bedpans.

The recruits are required to sign promissory notes or damage clauses that leave them thousands of dollars in debt if they leave the jobs before their one- or two-year contracts are completed. Some brokers have reneged on promises to provide return airfares, leaving islanders stranded 8,000 miles from home.

The U.S. Department of Labor has proposed that the contracts be banned, that brokers register with the island countries, and that they fully disclose employment terms to prospective workers.

The Marshall Islands government endorsed the latter idea in a statement by its Washington embassy, which said reforms would include "providing public information and education so that our citizens know of their risks and responsibilities."

Island officials said they still oppose any immigration amendments to a 16-year-old Compact of Free Association that would impede islanders from settling and working in the United States without obtaining a visa.

Some provisions of the compact, which governs relations between the island countries and the United States, are about to expire, and negotiations over their extension are expected to be completed within the next few weeks. The talks so far have centered on the amount of U.S. aid to the countries and the extension of a U.S. military lease in the Marshall Islands, rather than recruiting abuses.

"The RMI does not want to dilute the rights of its citizens to work in the U.S. as provided by the compact," the Marshall Islands' embassy said in its statement.

Marehalau said the island government "has pledged its full cooperation to work with the U.S. government outside the compact-negotiating process toward an effective regulatory regime." He said talks on those issues had begun in parallel with the talks to extend the compact.

"This government takes very seriously any suggestion of mistreatment of its citizens by recruitment firms, including misrepresentation of their contract terms," Marehalau said. He said it was "unfortunate" that some recruiters have sought to exploit provisions of the compact "for their own gain."

Some U.S. officials are pushing an effort to amend the compact to include recruitment-protection provisions.

"The department is anxious that any labor issues be resolved before the compact is finalized," a Labor Department official said.

A State Department official, speaking on background, said, "We recognize that labor and recruitment is an important issue," adding, "We are now working constructively on this issue."

The official did not indicate whether the agency would support or oppose an amendment to the compact, saying only, "We anticipate a satisfactory resolution of this issue in the context of the compact negotiations."

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