House OKs extension of island pact

Bill provides $3.5 billion aid, regulates recruiting of workers for jobs in U.S.

November 21, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

The House gave overwhelming approval yesterday to a 20-year extension of an agreement with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands that would provide $3.5 billion in aid and for the first time place controls on recruiters who sign up workers from those countries for low-paying jobs in the United States.

The bill, which now goes to the president, extends the Compact of Free Association, the 1986 agreement that governs relations between the United States and the two former U.S. trust territories. The House passed the measure 417-2.

Under the bill, the U.S. military's lease on a missile test range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands could be extended until 2086.

Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, called the military installation "vitally important."

The bill, which gained Senate approval two weeks ago, also contains $30 million in annual aid to Hawaii, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands and American Samoa to offset the impact of migration from the two countries.

Under the compact, Micronesians and Marshallese can come to the United States without a visa.

In addition to providing direct financial aid, the revised compact provisions set up separate trust funds for Micronesia and the Marshalls, which supporters contend will make the two countries self-sufficient in 20 years. The extension includes new financial review provisions designed to ensure that aid money is not misspent.

Before yesterday's vote, Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican, said congressional negotiators also agreed to provide funding for education and disaster assistance in the island nations that had not been recommended by the Bush administration.

Leach said the measure includes $5.3 million for the resettlement of Rongelap, part of the Marshall Islands chain, which was made uninhabitable by U.S. nuclear tests decades ago.

Tucked away in the package are provisions that would require recruiters who sign up workers in the two island countries to register with their governments and to disclose, in advance, the conditions of their employment.

The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel reported last year that a handful of recruiters were signing up hundreds of island residents for minimum-wage jobs in amusement parks and nursing homes in the United States.

The recruiters also required the workers to sign contracts that forced them to stay on those jobs for up to two years. Those who quit before fulfilling the terms of the contracts faced court judgments of thousands of dollars.

Under the compact extension, recruiters would be barred from using such contracts.

In remarks entered in the House record late last month Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said recruiters "have been abusing these unsophisticated workers ... by not revealing the real nature of the jobs to be performed and charging prohibitive liquidated damages should the workers leave employment prematurely."

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