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By Walter F. Roche Jr., Sun Staff; and Willoughby Mariano, Orlando
Trapped in servitude
far from their homes. Lured by promises, Pacific Islanders come
in search of education and employment, but instead find poverty,
misery and threats.
across an ocean and a continent - from the tiny Pacific isle of
Chuuk to rural Ashburn, Ga. - Gloria Likiche was surprised to find
herself working the graveyard shift at a nursing home, emptying
bedpans for $5.50 an hour and eating so poorly that she felt she
This was neither
the nurse-training program nor the well-paid job that recruiters
had talked so glowingly about when they lured her to America from
her impoverished island.
told me, 'You are going to become a nurse,'" she said. "I
thought I would like to do that."
a casual lifestyle of cutting breadfruit from trees and wading into
the surf to gather shrimp, Likiche found herself living in a dilapidated,
unheated trailer, where she and co-workers subsisted on a meager
diet, "boiling rice and vinegar and salt," her stomach
burning from hunger. Within months, she'd lost 30 pounds, and her
mother on the Micronesian island of Chuuk was sending care packages
of cookies and crackers.
18 when she signed English-language legal contracts she didn't fully
understand that indentured her to work for two years - not as a
nurse, as she expected, but as a certified nursing assistant, the
lowest rung on the health care ladder.
She earned only
about $100 a week after deductions, she said, and if she had walked
out before her contract expired, she would have been obligated to
pay damages equivalent to months of wages. She felt she had been
deceived, but knew that her chances of escape were slim.
caught," she told her mother over the phone. They both broke
down in tears.
A yearlong investigation
by The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel has found that more than 2,000
Micronesians and Marshall islanders have been brought to the United
States on one-way tickets and consigned to years of virtual servitude
by a handful of small-time entrepreneurs who exploit a little-known
16-year-old Compact of Free Association that allows the island residents
to settle and work here without visas.
brokers," as they are known in the trade, collect fees of up
to $5,500 from employers such as nursing homes and Florida amusement
parks for delivering each worker who signs a one- or two-year contract
to do menial, low-paying jobs that Americans seldom will.
Brokers or employers
sometimes deduct fees for housing, transportation and unexplained
service charges from workers' pay.
A recent U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service memorandum states that such
contracts may violate a federal law banning "human trafficking,"
the term used by governments to describe modern-day slavery, a practice
condemned by the United States and the United Nations.
cites clauses of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000
that prohibit workers from being held in "debt bondage"
and "involuntary servitude" through "abuse or threatened
abuse of the legal process," crimes punishable by up to 20
years in prison and fines of $5,000 to $250,000 for each offense.
to reform the recruiting process as part of negotiations to extend
the compact have been ignored by the chief U.S. negotiator, who
is eager to continue leasing a missile test range in the Marshall
Islands. Island officials say they won't be "bullied"
into impeding the flow of residents to the United States.
who leave, getting home can be difficult. When their contracts expire,
many find themselves stranded in America without money to fly home,
even though some contracts guarantee a return ticket. Brokers such
as Donald Finn of Bonita Springs, Fla., who pioneered the business
in the late 1990s and imported Likiche, have avoided this obligation
- a typical fare is $1,500 - by dissolving their companies or declaring
got these people indentured - they can't leave," said Vernon
Briggs Jr., a professor of labor economics at Cornell University
in New York. "It's not surprising that employers will do it
if the government allows it. ... The question is whether government
should be encouraging this sort of thing. It doesn't really improve
the lives of the people who take the jobs."
Some of the
workers are doubly indentured. First, they promise to pay the broker
up to $2,500 in damages if they quit before they fulfill the contract.
A second, similar contract signed with their employer can obligate
them to pay a penalty to the nursing home. Finn recruited for an
Iowa facility that made workers sign contracts requiring them to
pay damages of $3,750 if they left prematurely.
thus be liable for up to $6,250, a crippling sum for those who earn
so little. In addition to damages, at least two workers who quit
even had to pay a broker's legal fees as part of a settlement.
And some of
this commerce is subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Under the U.S. Workforce
Investment Act, formerly known as the Job Training Partnership Act,
two brokers have received grants of $252 per worker to screen and
train them for jobs in America.
are a disparate group. Besides Finn, a longtime nursing home manager,
they include a one-time radio station manager, a nurse and David
Bencivenga, owner of North Pacific Trading Co. of Kissimmee, Fla.
a former actuarial consultant to the Marshall Islands, became a
recruiter after failing to persuade SeaWorld officials to buy wooden
handicrafts he'd imported from the islands.
He says the
workers he has imported and sent to work in Central Florida at SeaWorld,
Busch Gardens, Universal Studios and McDonald's know what to expect.
The contracts are "very specific," he said in his makeshift
office in the Orlando apartment complex where he houses his workers.
"Everything is spelled out."
work in partnership with influential island figures. Bencivenga's
partner, Hubert Yamada, is a former director of the Social Security
Administration on Pohnpei, one of the Federated States of Micronesia,
and owns a construction company and other businesses.
Among the factors
that led SeaWorld to give North Pacific a contract were Yamada's
position in the government and a letter of introduction that Bencivenga
provided from the governor of Pohnpei, park officials said.
support this endeavor," wrote Gov. Del S. Pangelinan in June
1998. "We will work jointly with North Pacific Trading Company,
College of Micronesia-FSM and SeaWorld of Florida to design, implement
and maintain a successful program." (Involvement by the college
this was a reputable person," said the president of SeaWorld,
Victor G. Abbey. "It was a mistake, to be very direct about
longer does business with Bencivenga, and the recruits he sent there
are no longer part of his program.
The unique status
that allows the Pacific islanders to work in the United States is
a legacy of the days after World War II when Micronesia and the
Marshall Islands - situated west of Hawaii and spread over thousands
of square miles - were U.S. trust territories.
A Compact of
Free Association that went into effect in 1986 has provided about
$2 billion in U.S. aid to prop up the islands' flagging economies
and enabled their governments to participate in federal programs.
While the compact
is intended to put islanders on equal footing in seeking employment
in the United States, Americans working in comparable jobs are not
asked to sign such contracts or promissory notes. But the Pacific
islanders - many of them teen-agers, some without high school degrees
- are ripe for exploitation because they rarely understand the obligation
they are taking on. Though English is spoken in the islands, most
recruits are fluent only in one of several Micronesian languages.
And as noncitizens,
they are not eligible for help from a government-supported Legal
Services attorney to contest the contracts. Some dissatisfied recruits
flee their jobs anyway, but many more are cowed. Likiche cited the
threat of legal reprisals, which are spelled out in the contracts,
as a reason for staying. Like many, she said she was never given
copies of documents she signed.
perfect worker, isn't it?" said Andrew Sprenger, a lawyer in
Micronesia who helped recruits who were sued. "They're legally
there, and yet they can be taken advantage of."
are on the job, recruiters and employers often deduct money from
their paychecks to recoup training costs and housing advances.
Bencivenga arranged for employers to remit payments of $85 to $95
a week directly to him for worker housing, transportation and other
services, plus a monthly "administrative fee" of $25.
Abbey said SeaWorld
deducted only for services approved by the workers when they were
hired, but recruits said they merely followed Bencivenga's instructions
in filling out forms.
In a crowded
apartment in Tampa last December, a worker at SeaWorld displayed
a check stub typical of those of the Micronesian recruits, showing
that his take-home pay for a job paying $6.70 an hour was $251.47
for the last two weeks of 2001.
A total of $170
- $85 per week, or more than 30 percent of his earnings - had been
deducted by Bencivenga's company. The worker asked that his name
not be used for fear of retribution.
other recruiters insist that any problems with the program are the
fault of the recruits, who he says often drink too much and fail
to live up to their part of the agreement.
Bencivenga said, have "an American Indian-type drinking problem"
that causes them to act disruptively and show up late for work or
not at all.
States of Micronesia - Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap, Kosrae and 603 smaller
islands - and the Republic of the Marshall Islands are not picture
postcard tropical paradises of waving palm trees, endless white
beaches and cerulean seas.
of Micronesia, formerly known as the Carolines, were the scene of
ferocious battles with Japanese forces during World War II. Beneath
the waters of Chuuk (formerly Truk) Lagoon lies the wreckage of
more than 100 Japanese planes and ships, sent to the bottom during
an American attack in 1944. The Marshalls are perhaps best known
as the site of U.S. weapons testing at Bikini and Enewetak atolls
from 1946 to 1958 - 67 nuclear devices have been detonated there
- and as the location of the Ronald Reagan Missile Range on Kwajalein.
flock to Tahiti and Bora Bora bypass these remote, gritty and poverty-scarred
dots of land, where the few jobs tend to pay only $1.35 an hour
and most residents live in self-built homes made of plywood and
government have long been the traditional employers, but the fishing
industry has collapsed and government jobs have been slashed because
of cuts in U.S. aid. The islands' unemployment rate approaches 30
percent, the birth rate is high and many residents leave in search
of greater opportunity.
More than 14,000
islanders - nearly one-tenth of the population - have moved since
1986 to Hawaii and the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern
Marianas, where they work at menial jobs and occupy the lowest social
rung, according to surveys published last year by the U.S. Department
of the Interior.
hatch is access to the United States for work," said the Rev.
Francis X. Hezel, a Jesuit priest who has been studying the Micronesian
economy for decades. "People were saying, 'When's the next
plane leaving? I'm out of here.' It's bye-bye time at the airport."
So, it was no
surprise that when recruiters arrived in the islands five years
ago that their pitch was greeted warmly, especially when it was
being made by respected teachers, government officials and other
members of the islands' elite.
A former recruiter
in Pohnpei, Yalmer Helgenberger, owns a hotel and directs the island's
office of economic affairs. Another Pohnpei recruiter, Glenn B.
Jano, works in the government's marine fisheries agency. Yet another,
Johnny Hebel, works for the government-owned hospital. More