PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT

Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i

 

Feature

MICRONESIAN MIGRANTS SEEK BETTER LIFE ON GUAM

By Arvin Temkar

HAGTA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, March 12, 2012) – Jacob Kilafwakun, a carpenter, came to Guam two decades ago in search of opportunity. He moved here alone, and sent money home to his wife and four children in Kosrae, waiting for the day he could bring the family over. He saved little by little, until five years later he finally had enough.

Now he's happy with the life he's built here. His family is with him, he has three grandchildren, and he earns seven times more than he did in Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia.

Since the Compacts of Free Association were signed between the United States, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands in 1986, thousands of people have flocked to Guam for better job opportunities and better lives. The compacts, which the Republic of Palau later joined, allows FSM, Marshall Islands and Palau citizens to move to the United States, and many of them chose to settle on Guam.

"Guam is good," said Carmina Kilafwakun, Jacob Kilafwakun's wife. "It's a better life than back home."

In the Federated States of Micronesia, Jacob Kilafwakun's homeland, the economy is bleak.

A Department of the Interior-funded report last year called the FSM economy "harsh." Since 2003, real per-capita incomes have risen just 1.1 percent to $2,368 -- an increase of $25. The country's gross domestic product -- the sum of all goods and services produced within the Pacific island nation -- has declined by an annual average of 0.3 percent. Minimum wages for public employees in the FSM are all under $2.50 an hour. Average private sector wages are even lower.

The World Bank ranked the FSM as one of the most difficult places in the world to do business. It placed 141 out of 183 countries, with the Marshall Islands and Palau not too far behind.

Migrant surge

Now there are almost 30,000 Micronesian migrants living on Guam --nearly three times more than a decade ago, according projections by the Guam Bureau of Statistics and Plans.

Micronesian migrants have become an important part of Guam's labor force, said Jay Merrill, acting executive director of the Center for Micronesian Empowerment, a nonprofit that trains unskilled immigrants for the workforce.

Micronesians hold 10 percent of private sector jobs, and make up significant portions of jobs like landscaping and heavy construction, according to Department of Labor statistics.

But as Guam's own economy falters, many migrants are struggling as much here as they were at home.

Mori Masis and his fiancee Teslin Nakamura, who moved from Chuuk in 2007, spent the holidays with their two young children in a homeless shelter.

"It's hard for me," said Masis, a construction worker.

The 23-year-old, who speaks broken English, has had trouble finding work. The construction jobs he's had only last a few months at a time, and he's been held back by a limited ability to read and write.

The family was living with a relative in Mangilao, but after Masis' last job in September, he couldn't help pay rent, so the landlord kicked them out. Last Christmas the family was in a shelter and on a waiting list for Section 8 housing.

Despite the circumstances, Masis said he'd rather be on Guam than in Chuuk.

"We have food for my kids -- we have food stamps and welfare -- it's good here," he said. "If I go to Chuuk, no money, no food. Maybe my kids are better here."

Acculturation

Monty McDowell, chief executive officer of building maintenance company Advance Management Inc., has been a local advocate for Micronesian immigrants. Half of his 300 employees are from the Freely Associated States.

Many of his Micronesian migrant employees came in without skills, he said. His only requirement is that they can read and write, for safety purposes. He trains his employees in entry-level jobs and sends them to the GCA Trades Academy, if they want to go.

Years ago, McDowell had a problem keeping his Micronesian migrant employees. He couldn't figure out why. It wasn't until he invited a Chuukese professor to a training session did he figure out that the problem had to do with culture. Many of the immigrants didn't understand Western work practices or expectations, he learned.

So McDowell started a program to teach his employees about the culture of Guam -- "acculturation," he calls it. It's made a remarkable difference, and it was the starting point for the Center of Micronesian Empowerment.

The Center for Micronesian Empowerment, which McDowell founded, was formed in 2007. It houses and trains regional immigrants, enrolling them in courses at the GCA Trades Academy and Guam Community College. Expenses are paid for by the immigrants' home governments.

So far the center has placed 190 people with private employers, a 95-percent success rate, said Merrill, acting executive director. But the demand far outstrips enrollment -- for every one person accepted, at least 20 are turned away.

Guam's economy

The FSM's economy has failed to provide productive opportunities to the population, according to the Department of the Interior funded report. But on Guam, too, there is less room for employment, said McDowell.

"Our economy has just tanked," he said.

A slowdown in the military buildup and a blow to tourism following the 2011 triple disasters in Japan have hit the economy hard. Guam's unemployment rate was 13 percent as of last March, the latest surveyed period. Among the Micronesian population, the unemployment rate could be as high as 80 percent, McDowell said. There are no hard numbers to support that, but it's the opinion of the Center of Micronesian Empowerment's board, which includes the consulate generals of the FSM and Palau, he said.

Guam can't handle the increasing flow of immigrants if the migrants don't have basic employment skills like reading and writing, McDowell said.

Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo, in her annual island address in February, said citizens of the Freely Associated States need to know that Guam also has a high unemployment rate and limited government services. The Freely Associated States include the FSM, Palau and the Marshalls.

By the time Jacob Kilafwakun, the carpenter, reached Guam two decades ago, he was well-versed in construction. His employer, International Bridge Corp., had sent him to the Marshall Islands before bringing him to Andersen Air Force Base.

He said he still sees the appeal of coming to Guam, but he thinks some immigrants don't yet have the skills to succeed here. People enticed by the wages of construction jobs may have backgrounds in unrelated areas, like farming or fishing.

"The people coming nowadays have to start from the bottom," he said.

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