Micronesia OKs U.S. ban of `body broker' contracts

Recruiters to be required to disclose work details, register with government

April 03, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

For the first time, the Marshall Islands government has agreed to regulate "body brokers" who induced island residents to sign contracts relegating them to menial jobs in the United States under conditions some U.S. officials have likened to "indentured servitude."

During negotiations to extend an aid compact with the United States, Marshall Islands officials accepted Monday a proposal made last year by the U.S. Department of Labor that would bar the contracts binding islanders to low-paying jobs for periods of up to two years. Recruiters also would have to register with the Marshall Islands government and disclose details of the contracts.

In a three-part series last fall, The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel described how thousands of Pacific islanders had been placed in nursing homes and amusement parks in the United States by the brokers, who collected fees of up to $5,500 per worker.

FOR THE RECORD - A headline on Page 3A yesterday incorrectly identified the country that has agreed to regulate "body brokers" who induce residents to sign contracts relegating them to menial jobs under conditions that have been described as "indentured servitude." The country was the Marshall Islands, not Micronesia. The Sun regrets the errors.

Meanwhile, the workers lived by sixes and sevens in squalid apartments, earned so little money that they could barely afford food, and were threatened with legal reprisals if they sought to flee. Those who completed the contracts were often abandoned, virtually penniless, 8,000 miles from home.

"They [the Marshall Islands negotiators] pretty much agreed to everything," said one top U.S. official, who asked not to be identified. Officials on both sides declined to publicly discuss details of the agreement, which was initialed Monday.

The agreement comes weeks after the Congress in the Federated States of Micronesia approved a new law authorizing first-time regulation of body brokers in that Pacific Island nation. The bill, which has since been signed into law by Micronesian President Leo Falcam, authorizes his government to issue recruiting regulations that are expected to follow the U.S. Labor Department proposal.

Some U.S. officials expressed surprise that the Marshall Islands had abandoned its previous unwillingness to accept any measure that might limit the rights of its citizens to live and work in the United States.

However, it was facing a critical deadline that could have resulted in a complete cutoff of U.S. funding when the current federal fiscal year ends in September. The funding, amounting to billions of dollars for the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, is granted under the Compact of Free Association. The compact regulates ties between the United States and the two former trust territories, which gained independence in 1986.

Negotiators also reached agreement on a series of other amendments and extensions to the compact, which must be formally signed and then submitted for approval to the U.S. Congress and the legislatures of the two island countries.

Gerald M. Zackios, the minister of foreign affairs for the Marshall Islands, said in a statement that he was "pleased ... that after long and difficult negotiations, we have reached agreement with the U.S. government on the immigration provisions that retain the right of Marshallese to enter the U.S. without a visa to work, study and establish residence for an indefinite period of time."

Under the new agreements, their citizens will be required to present a Marshall Islands passport before being allowed to enter the United States, officials said. The agreement also will set new requirements for U.S. citizens seeking to adopt Marshallese children.

Kristina Stege, first secretary at the Marshall Islands embassy in Washington, said the labor agreement would address the recruitment of islanders by brokers, but she declined to discuss the particulars.

Memos obtained by The Sun show that even among U.S. officials, there was debate over the inclusion of labor regulation provisions as part of the compact negotiations. The chief U.S. negotiator, Albert V. Short, a retired Army colonel, was said by sources to view the provisions as distractions from securing other agreements, such as extending the lease on a missile testing range for the American military.

That internal debate prompted a letter to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson from Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage in which he referred to the employment contracts as "fraudulent and abusive labor recruitment practices that have recently come to light." A top U.S. Labor Department official, Thomas B. Moorhead, stated in an earlier memo, "It is our responsibility to prevent indentured servitude in the U.S."

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