Micronesia acts to rein in `body brokers'

Island congress endorses ban on contracts that lead to `servitude' in U.S.

March 19, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A bill has been approved in the Federated States of Micronesia to regulate the recruitment by "body brokers" of thousands of Pacific islanders for low-paying jobs in the United States, where they have labored under conditions a senior State Department official calls "indentured servitude."

The law, passed in a recently concluded session of the Micronesian Congress, enables the government to adopt a U.S. Department of Labor proposal to ban the use of employment contracts that, in effect, indenture the workers to their jobs for periods of up to two years.

Justice Secretary Paul E. McIlrath said that President Leo Falcam will sign the bill into law once it is sent to him, probably within 10 days. McIlrath said his agency will then begin the process of adopting regulations that will require job brokers to register with the government and disclose details of their recruiting arrangements.

He said the regulations might be adopted on an emergency basis, which would put them into effect immediately.

In a three-day series published last September, The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel reported that thousands of Micronesians and Marshall Islanders have been recruited by the brokers for low-paying jobs in nursing homes and amusement parks in the United States.

The brokers, who collect fees of up to $5,500 per recruit, are able to bring the workers in on one-way tickets without visas under the provisions of a 16-year-old international agreement known as the Compact of Free Association.

Many of the recruits are routinely required to sign two-year employment agreements, which leave them liable for damages of up to $6,250 if they leave the assigned jobs before the agreement expires. If they complete their contracts, they often find themselves stranded with little money, 8,000 miles from home.

Renewing U.S. compact

In a recent letter to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson obtained by The Sun, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage referred to those contracts as "fraudulent and abusive labor recruitment practices that have recently come to light."

The action in Micronesia comes as U.S. officials are finalizing negotiations to renew expiring provisions of the compact with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. The nations are former U.S. trust territories that still receive hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid and are eligible to participate in many federal programs.

Negotiators for the two countries say they are concerned that unless an agreement is reached quickly, critical funding could be cut off.

In final talks that began last week, debate between the United States and island negotiators has become focused on immigration issues, including recruitment and adoption.

While the Micronesian government is moving to regulate the recruiters, the chief negotiator for the Marshall Islands, Robert Muller, has issued a statement warning that reaching a final compact agreement could be jeopardized by the insistence of some U.S. officials on including labor recruitment or any other new provisions limiting the immigration rights of Marshallese.

`A critical point'

"There is no question that we are reaching a critical point in the negotiation process," Muller said in the statement. "We will not compromise the right of Marshallese to enter into the U.S. without a visa, to study, work or establish a residence as non-immigrants for an indeterminate period of time."

According to U.S. government letters and memos, officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now merged into the Department of Homeland Security) and the Labor Department strongly urged that the compact be amended to include provisions to block abuses not only in labor recruitment but also in the adoption of Marshallese babies by U.S. families.

Federal officials also expressed national security concerns.

In a letter Oct. 21 to the State Department, then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General Stuart A. Levey said that adding new immigration provisions to the compact would alleviate concerns that the compact could be used by "terrorists, criminals and other aliens" to gain entry to the United States.

Levey's letter specifically cited labor recruitment abuses "that have recently come to light" and reports of a continuing problem with the adoption of babies from the Marshall Islands by U.S. residents bypassing normal court-approved adoption procedures.

In an earlier memo, a top U.S. Labor Department official, Thomas B. Moorhead, stated flatly, "It is our responsibility to prevent indentured servitude in the U.S."

An official of the Marshall Islands Embassy in Washington declined to discuss any details of the latest talks but said the nation wanted to address the issues of labor recruitment and adoptions. "We have relayed that very clearly to the U.S. administration," the official said.

A spokesman for the State Department said the U.S. team negotiating the compact, headed by Albert V. Short, regards the labor and adoption issues as "important and urgent."

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