The Commonwealth Casino Commission has asked Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC to come up with a backup plan so that construction of their multi-million dollar Imperial Pacific Resort would no longer encounter delays and other problems. The CNMI Lottery Commission granted IPI an extension to finish the casino-hotel project on Feb. 28, 2021 after it failed to meet the original deadline of August last year.
CCC vice chair Joseph C. Reyes said they expect the progress of the ongoing construction project to slow down after hundreds of Filipino construction laborers, who are holding H-2B work visas, are scheduled to be sent home on or before Feb. 9. The workers will be sent home due to the decision of the U.S. Department of State in removing the Philippines from the list of countries that are qualified for the said visa program.
IPI has a total of 844 H-2B laborers that are currently working at the casino-hotel construction site, but it will be drastically reduced by almost half due to Filipinos no longer eligible for the said works visa and IPI already arranging their flights back to the Philippines.
The ban took effect on January 2019 and will end on Jan. 18 next year. The Dominican Republic and Ethiopia join the Philippines as countries removed from the H-2B program due to concerns on potential for abuse, overstay rates, fraud, human trafficking concerns, and other forms of non-compliance. The DHS’ decision took effect on Jan. 19, 2019 and ends on Jan. 18, 2020.
Reyes, in a telephone interview with Saipan Tribune, said IPI management now needs to reassess their project and come up with a potential backup plan to lessen the impact of the recent decision made by the U.S. State Department. “Now that’s the million-dollar question. Where are they going to hire the workers that would replace the ones from the Philippines?”
“We [CCC] raised this concern and asked them what would be their plan of moving forward. They said that they would report back to us with a more concrete plan. The H-2B visa issue is a big concern for all of us, not only IPI but also for other developers and the entire CNMI.”
The Philippines, because of its proximity to the CNMI and Guam, have been a source of skilled workers for the Marianas. Laborers from China and Chinese-Taipei, who entered the CNMI legally, continue to work at the construction site where Phase 1 (resort hotel) and Phase 2 (tower hotel) are in progress and have an estimated date of completion on Dec. 31 this year.
A separate team of 19 personnel from an IPI subcontractor is working to install the Dragon chandelier, composed of 11 from USA Fanter and eight technicians. Other nearby Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia could also be a source of construction workers for the casino-resort developer.
He added that the Philippines being removed from the H-2B visa program would cause problems to other construction projects. “The [H-2B visa] issue might hamper some construction projects with IPI to experience some setbacks. This is a big concern for us since we’re still in recovery after a devastating typhoon.”
“Skilled laborers in construction are badly needed because we have limited workforce here on the island. It is not only the IPI construction project that is going to be affected. The [H-2B] issue is a setback to us after the progress that we’ve gained.,” said Reyes.
Reyes said that Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) had already raised these issues. “We’re hoping the U.S. Congress act on it as soon as possible. The governor and Kilili are united in this issue.”
“Now that [IPI chief executive officer] Mark Brown is back at the helm, management must now reassess or reevaluate the situation. This requires a business decision.”
Brown, in last Wednesday’s CCC board meeting, again reiterated their commitment in completing the project but they are now facing a major setback. “We need to finish this building… I beg the community, we’re all in this together. We have a half-built building that we need to get completed.”
“We now have hundreds of Filipino construction workers that have to go home. We didn’t make that rule. It just so happened and now we have to scramble. Now, where will our other workers would come from?”
The Philippine Honorary Consul Office in the CNMI said that IPI officials had already met with the workers and informed them that some will get paid today while they continue to compute the final salaries of the others. IPI management is also trying to book their flights back to the Philippines with some of the workers scheduled to leave tomorrow.
The PHCO said that IPI could not accommodate all the workers at once and they will be doing it in batches since they are more than 100.
Ian Piel, one of the workers waiting to be sent back home, informed Saipan Tribune that some of his compatriots that were told to stop work had already received their salaries from the previous pay period and are now just waiting for their plane tickets back to the Philippines.
He said that he is waiting for his turn to receive his salary, plane ticket, and, if any, other monetary compensation from IPI.