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    Saturday, April 20, 2019-2:14:17P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Local DOL: Construction workers can claim back wages in NMI

CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Vicky I. Benavente said the five construction workers still on island can claim their back wages and liquidate damages through the USDOL office on Saipan.

Earlier this week, USDOL announced that it had finalized a series of settlements with China-based contractors that will pay a collective $13.9 million in back wages and damages to thousands of employees who came from China to build the Saipan casino and hotel. The workers arrived here as “tourists.”

The contractors are MCC International Saipan Ltd. Co., Beilida New Materials System Engineering Co. Ltd., Gold Mantis Construction Decoration, and Sino Great Wall International Engineering Co. LLC

Benavente said they are working closely with USDOL and the contractors to document every worker who will get back wages and damages.

Gov. Ralph Torres, in a separate interview on Thursday, said his administration is hoping to get some direction from USDOL so that the five remaining workers can be properly informed regarding their claims.

“Our local DOL secretary is working closely with them [USDOL] to make sure that no one is left out and to make sure that everybody is properly documented and paid,” the governor said.

Aaron Halegua, a New York-based lawyer and researcher who has been following the case of the casino construction workers, commended the USDOL announcement.

“I applaud the work of the U.S. Department of Labor in obtaining compensation for these workers that were so seriously defrauded and exploited,” he said in an email. “Backpay and liquidated damages are the minimum that employers who engage in such egregious violations of the law should be forced to pay. If an employer could get away with just paying the wages that it should have paid in the first place, but suffered no additional penalty for breaking the law, there would be no incentive to comply.”

He added, “The casino project is far from over and we still must ask: what is being done to prevent exploitation like this in the future? Some of the Chinese workers had legal work visas but were still badly abused. There are reports that over 1,500 foreign construction workers on H2-B visas will soon begin work on the casino. But there have also been numerous cases of unscrupulous employers seriously exploiting H2-B workers.”

He said the U.S. Department of Labor “should insist that Imperial Pacific require that any future contractors subject themselves to third-party monitoring of their labor practices. We know that foreign workers who are entirely dependent on their employers are vulnerable to exploitation, and we have seen the effects of that play out in Saipan. In light of this experience, the government and Imperial Pacific should be proactive in ensuring this abuse does not occur in the first place; not simply prepared to clean up the mess after it happens.”