Under the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker Program, or CW program, contract workers from foreign countries are hired to work for businesses. The contract worker program has been going on for more than 10 years. Because of this program, foreign people moved to the CNMI to gain financial stability; many have already started families and built a life on our islands. In addition, many have lived here for more than 20 years. Today, the issue is that the CNMI contract worker program is cutting back on 9,000 workers after the initial end year of 2019. This means that most of these workers who have been in the CNMI for so long will be forced to go back to their country and basically restart their lives. Since foreign workers make up the majority of the workforce in the CNMI, removing the program will create a shortage of workers and negatively impact our economy.
To improve the situation, I suggest that the government give “CNMI-only resident” status to long-term workers—contract workers who have been employed in the CNMI for 10 or more years. This way, if the CW program does come to an end, the workers who have long been committed to working on the island can stay without having to worry about the prospect of having to return to their homeland. In addition, a shortage of workers in the CNMI would not occur because the current contract workers would still be on island to continue work even after the year 2019.
In 2016, talks of “improving the status of long-term workers” were on the rise. But it slowly died out. However, now that the CW program has officially been extended but with a shortened cap, discussion must arise once again. Granting improved status will properly transition the workforce in the CNMI from largely foreign workers to CNMI residents and citizens. By giving improved status, the CNMI can slowly close the CW program while retaining the same amount of workers.
Dissenters may argue that giving foreign workers resident status is just giving them the opportunity to leave the CNMI for the mainland. However, this is a hasty conclusion; it is too early to be saying such a thing. Since there is no current legislation on improving the status of foreign workers, there is still a lot of legroom to define what “CNMI-only” status for foreign workers is. Legislation can be made to keep the workers in the CNMI and only in the CNMI. It is only up to the legislators to define the future.
Another argument may be that foreign workers will only take up more jobs in the CNMI. As was stated before, foreign workers and their families already make up much of the population. The truth is that the indigenous population is slowly growing smaller while the need for workers is ongoing. Giving improved status to foreign workers will not take away jobs from CNMI residents and citizens.
In the end, the end of the contract worker program will affect many aspects of our island lives. We must act not only to ensure that our islands retain our current financial status but also to keep families together. We must give foreign workers improved status.