Marianas Variety

Last updateTue, 22 Oct 2019 12am







    Sunday, October 20, 2019-8:10:45A.M.






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US senators raise concerns about NMI labor issues

TWO U.S. senators have raised concern about CNMI labor issues and were assured by Gov. Ralph Torres that his administration is doing everything it can to address them.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, is concerned about the flow of foreign labor into CNMI without the appropriate safeguards which she said can create conditions ripe for labor trafficking.

“What enforcement and educational programs or policies does local law enforcement have to ensure that forced labor is not being used in the CNMI’s construction industry?” the senator asked.

Governor Torres responded that the CNMI has made remarkable progress in worker’s rights.

“The most recent situation regarding construction workers is troubling, but as in economies throughout the United States, bad actors will always attempt to circumvent laws for private gain. In an effort to curtail these practices, I have worked closely with the Commonwealth Casino Commission, U.S. and CNMI Departments of Labor and Imperial Pacific International to ensure this practice is not only condemned but halted,” Torres told the senator.

He said in recent weeks, the CNMI government has collaborated with the U.S. Department of Labor to seek payment for the wages of foreign workers who entered the CNMI illegally

“Since [last] month, the CNMI, alongside the U.S. Department of Labor, facilitated the payment of $1.1 million in back wages to 104 foreign workers.

“While the CNMI no longer has authority over immigration to the islands pursuant to the enactment of U.S. Public Law 110-229, I am working alongside the CNMI Legislature to create local statutes that would criminalize the practice of employers illegally sourcing their foreign labor and will continue to use the resources available to me to inform the business community that the practice of illegally trafficking foreign labor not only paints a poor picture of the CNMI, but also affects the wider economy at a time where we need economic development urgently.

“While we work toward strengthening our deterrents to prevent employers from taking advantage of their workers, the illegal hiring and employment of foreign workers is indicative of the difficulties all employers are experiencing in hiring and staffing their operations. In the absence of skilled U.S. eligible workers, employers are taking greater risks in contravention of the law to meet the obligations of their contracts. Rather than dealing with the ramifications of illegal practices, I ask for recognition of the CNMI’s need for increased legal avenues for foreign labor so that the labor market can be legitimate, and trackable so laws relating to the proper and just treatment of workers can be more readily enforced.”

Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked the governor about H.R. 339 which bars the use of CW permits to hire new foreign construction workers.

“Why do you think this is necessary for economic development in the Marianas,” Hirono asked.

According to the governor, “The CNMI does not have the requisite number of construction workers on-island to continue to grow our economy, and because of that, the bar on the use of CW permits for foreign construction workers has the potential to negatively affect the economic development of the CNMI. Despite this fact, the policy offered in H.R. 339 provides the wider economy a greater level of stability not present in the current system.”

H.R. 339 proposes to raise the fiscal year 2017 CW cap from 12,998 to 15,000 and the CW fee from $150 to $200 which will be used for training local workers. The bill will also make most construction positions ineligible for the CW program.

The bill has already been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and is now pending in the U.S. Senate.

Torres said he has “made many efforts to advise [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] of the negative repercussions of their current CW processing system and have requested that they make necessary revisions to ensure single industries or companies do not hamper the larger economy.”

He said the “events of the last year with regard to labor shortages and illegal immigration have validated [our] concerns and in the absence of a partnership with the federal government in the allocation of CW permits, something must be done to ensure the larger economy is not crippled by the overabundance of demand for CW permits in a single sector.”