Issue 8 - Winter 2004
Indentured in America (page 1 of 2)
By Walter F. Roche Jr., Sun Staff; and Willoughby Mariano, Orlando Sentinel

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.

After journeying 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 was starving.

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.

"Recruiters told me, 'You are going to become a nurse,'" she said. "I thought I would like to do that."

Accustomed to 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.

Likiche was 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.

"We're 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.

These "body 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.

The document 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.

But efforts 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.

For islanders 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 bankruptcy.

"You've 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.

Workers can 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.


The brokers 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.

Bencivenga, 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."

Typically, brokers 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.

"We enthusiastically 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 never materialized.)

"We felt this was a reputable person," said the president of SeaWorld, Victor G. Abbey. "It was a mistake, to be very direct about it."

SeaWorld no longer does business with Bencivenga, and the recruits he sent there are no longer part of his program.

'A perfect worker'

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.

"It's a 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."

While workers are on the job, recruiters and employers often deduct money from their paychecks to recoup training costs and housing advances.

In Florida, 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.

Bencivenga and 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.

Micronesians, 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.

'The escape hatch'

The Federated 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.

The islands 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.

Tourists who 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 corrugated metal.

Fishing 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.

"The escape 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 >>

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