The president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce believes that increasing the numerical limit on CW-1 workers—foreign workers allowed to work in the CNMI—from the current cap of 12,998 to 18,000—an increase of around 5,000—is enough to help in the Commonwealth’s further economic development.
The federal agency that handles foreign labor, called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has set the cap of CNMI-Only Transition Worker Nonimmigrant Visa, or CW-1, at 12,998. That number was filled last month, just three weeks since the start of fiscal year 2017.
The cap is set by the Consolidated Natural Resources Act, which dictates that it must reach zero by 2019—just three years from now.
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ administration, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), and business leaders—the Chamber, the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Society of Human Resources-CNMI Chapter, and the Strategic Economic Development Council—have asked Congress for help in finding a solution to the CNMI’s labor issues.
Tinian and Rota are included in the 18,000-worker increase in numerical cap. Alter City Group and Bridge Investment Group are building separate hotel projects on Tinian, while several investors are looking to develop the southern island of Rota.
Chamber president Velma Palacios said that having 18,000 foreign workers would be enough to help support the CNMI’s current economic development in the next two years. “The number of workers, we don’t have that right now. Even if you add all workers here and those who are studying or are in the mainland, it won’t be enough,” said Palacios. “We’re all working toward the CW program to have an increase with the cap, we’re working very hard on that. We emphasized that, although…a lot of businesses had hired local residents or U.S. citizens, there are still not enough workers and we will still be needing our workers in the CW program.”
She said that while a lot of businesses have also transitioned their employee to other applicable U.S. work visas—like H1 and H2—there are still those who are not qualified for that category. “So we need to find other ways, that’s why we still need the program. There are a lot of jobs but we need people to fill them and we need workers.”
“We’ve also explained that some businesses continue to advertise in order to hire U.S. citizens and locals. The small businesses would be affected the most since they can’t afford all the increases and H visa [category]. They have to pass the costs to the consumers.”
Members of the U.S. Government Accountability Office are scheduled to arrive this month to assess the CNMI’s current labor issues. “They want to see if we’re working to hire more U.S. citizens and training the local workforce. We do have a lot of companies, which hired and trained local citizens,” said Palacios.
“They are working with the [Northern Marianas Trades Institute] and Latte Training Academy, especially in the hospitality industry. [Hotels] are also trying to do their own training program. But you can’t train all, we need specific types of skilled workers and we can’t just get them on the streets. You just can’t train them in one month, there’s a process in acquiring these skills.”