House approves aid for 2 Pacific nations

$3.5 billion package includes protection for islanders working in U.S.

October 29, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

An aid package for two Pacific Island nations that would provide more than $3.5 billion in funding over 20 years and ensure first-time protection for island workers recruited to work in low-paying jobs in the United States was approved by the House yesterday in a voice vote.

The measure, which still must be acted on by the Senate, would extend and amend the Compact of Free Association, a 1986 agreement between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Under the revised agreement, separate trust funds would be set up for each of the two former U.S. trust territories, a move supporters contend will allow the two countries to become self-sufficient within 20 years.

Part of the agreement spells out a series of new requirements designed to protect workers from the islands who are recruited to work at amusement parks and nursing homes in the United States.

The pact requires that the recruiters register with the government and disclose full details of the proposed employment to the recruits. It also specifically bars the recruiters from requiring the workers to sign contracts that effectively indenture them to menial jobs for periods of up to two years. Recruiters also would have to tell workers that U.S. law gives them the right to change jobs without any adverse effect on their immigration status.

The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel reported last year that use of the contracts was routine and recruits faced court judgments of up to $6,250 if they left the jobs before their contracts expired. After the report, officials in the U.S. Labor Department and the State Department pushed for inclusion of the new worker protections.

A top Labor Department official, Thomas B. Moorhead, said in a memo at the time: "It is our responsibility to prevent indentured servitude in the U.S." The revised compact would keep provisions that allow citizens of the Marshall Islands and Micronesia to travel to the United States for jobs or education without obtaining a visa.

The measure also provides for an extension until 2066 of a U.S. lease agreement for the use of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the site of the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Range. The lease could be extended again until 2086.

The measure also would restore annual educational funding, in Pell grants, and disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that were not included in the Bush administration's original proposal. Without the Pell grants, island officials had warned, the only colleges in both countries would be forced to close.

Also included in the pact is $15 million a year in so-called impact funding earmarked for Guam, Hawaii, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas, U.S. locations that have been heavily affected by those migrating from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.

Madeleine Z. Bordallo, a Democrat who is Guam's nonvoting delegate in Congress, praised the inclusion of impact funding, saying Guam was "more significantly impacted" than any other jurisdiction.

The package, she said, would provide "critical financial assistance with greater accountability."

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