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  • By Zaldy Dandan

America’s ‘little slave colony’

Saipan — From the New York Times:

“Asian workers and entertainers brought to this western Pacific island say that they have been systematically underpaid, physically abused and intimidated by threats of deportation if they complain — often, apparently, with the complicity of…government officials.”

The CNMI in the 1990s?

Actually, Guam.

The NYT report titled “Slave Labor and Brutality Charges on Guam” was published on April 12, 1978 and reprinted by Marianas Variety nine days later.

The “complicit” government mentioned by the report was the U.S.

“Despite widespread public awareness and official acknowledgement of such abuses,” the NYT reported, “officers of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in this…U.S. territory…have made little or no effort to stop them, according to the alien workers.”

The American Civil Liberties Union on Guam “supports the allegations by the workers, most of whom are Filipinos and South Koreans.”

It gets worse.

Some of the workers, the report stated, “have repeatedly been beaten by their employers and made to live in substandard housing or to go without food, and some have been forced to leave without being given their pay or the deportation hearing that is their right.”

U.S. immigration officers on Guam “have reinforced the already enormous power of the employers by allowing them to keep the workers’ passports, in violation of American law, and by sometimes accompanying rebellious workers to the airport.”

Workers said their employers “ordered them to help build, remodel or paint the homes of Immigration and Naturalization Service officers as ‘happy labor’ without pay.”

The NYT noted that the former U.S. immigration chief on Guam who retired after he was transferred to the states “reportedly sold his house for $280,000, making it one of the four or five most expensive residences on the island.”

According to the NYT:

“Albert C. Meierer Jr., a [U.S.] Labor Department official who said his life has been threatened since he was sent here last fall to investigate the situation, described the exploitation of the construction workers, singers and musicians as being ‘like slavery in the South before the Civil War.’ He added, ‘It’s a vicious, rotten mess, a disgrace to the United States.’ Meierer said he also has evidence that young women among the band members, who come here to entertain the many American servicemen and Japanese tourists, and other female immigrants have been forced to have sexual relations with immigration officers to keep from being deported.”

Asked for comment, the then-U.S. immigration office head Richard Perry “vehemently denied the charge of sexual exploitation, although he did concede…that there is a widespread pattern of abuse of the alien workers.”

The NYT said an American-owned painting company, Oripac, was charged with peonage (the legal term for slavery), conspiracy to deny employees their civil rights, underpayment of wages, extortion and 16 other counts involving beatings.

Michael F. Caldwell, a UOG professor interviewed by the NYT, “noted with irony the contrast between the Carter administration’s concern with human rights in the [Marcos-era] Philippines and its neglect of ‘the little slave colony we run here in our own backyard.’ ”

These horror stories were not new in 1978, and reports of labor abuses on Guam were already well-known in the mid- and late-1960’s.

Robert F. Rogers, in his splendid history of Guam, “Destiny’s Landfall,” said the abuses prompted no less than Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos to complain and threaten legal action against Guam labor contractors. The year was 1968.

Labor abuses on Guam, however, were already occurring just after the war as the U.S. military brought in the workers it needed for its many projects on the island.

Rogers said the Filipinos numbered around 28,000 in 1948 and “usually did most of the labor” yet they received the lowest pay, about one-third of what Americans hired from the U.S. got.

“This system saved the U.S. military money and provided high profits to contractors. The system also constituted outright exploitation of local and alien laborers.”

Poor Guam. Poor feds.

They had no garment manufacturers or casinos to blame.

Zaldy Dandan is a long-time resident of Saipan and editor of Marianas Variety.


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