Not just a simple wage issue


With one member of the Legislature proposing a wage hike to federal standard, another proposing legislation to give tax incentives to businesses hiring a number and kinds of people, yet another proposing to require employers doing business with the government to pay the CNMI prevailing wage, I am wondering why you gentlemen cannot bring yourselves to the same table with the governor’s secretaries of Labor, Commerce, and the Civil Service Commission to try and figure out the best way to address living conditions in the CNMI.

You all seem to think that this is a simple wage issue. It is not, and if done right, we may actually come out generally better than before.

While I applaud the proposal to give tax incentives to businesses hiring U.S. citizens, I do find that the requirement of the number of NMDs that should be hired imposes a greater challenge to the businesses for it ignores the fact that many of our most qualified workers are not here. They are working somewhere else where their financial livelihood is a lot better than here. Furthermore, why 10 percent of the 60 percent? Is it because you do not have faith in your own people or you truly do believe that they are not here and will not come back? Please, offer a certain amount of rebate for a certain number of U.S. citizens hired, instead. I also recommend to limit these incentives to smaller businesses as they will be most affected by this transition. The larger corporations have already more than adequate—too much, in fact—tax incentives. They do not need more. They are supposed to be the pioneers of human/social-economic development as leaders of this community and should be part of their corporate social responsibility policy.

The minimum wage increase leaving construction workers out of the mainstream is highly prejudicial and should be carefully scrutinized for possible violation of constitutional rights. In fact, it does not even make any sense at all. To have menial workers such as janitors, waiters, and front desk or office clerks earn more than construction workers who are trained, skilled, and experienced is defeating efforts to direct young people to earn certificates and work in the construction industry. It is devaluing the skills that takes years to learn in both institutional instruction and hands on experience.

The legislation proposing to mandate prevailing wages for those employees hired to perform and deliver government contracts is a slap on the face to those government employees who are barely above the current minimum wage as well as those who are employed in companies that do not have government contracts.

There are contradicting research out there stating that increasing minimum wages may or may not result in loss of jobs. The economists used a variety of methods to gather information and come up with their conclusions based on the information they gathered, and there exists conflicting results. One group says it affects unemployment while the other says no, it does not have any discernible effect, and yet another group says, it has zero effect. So now we are left to ourselves to determine what to do with our situation.

The way I see it is there are critical factors that we need to take into consideration that are not and never have been a part of these research: 1) Majority of the jobs in the CNMI are occupied by foreign workers who are not qualified to work in the United States under H visas. 2) These jobs are menial jobs such as janitors, clerks, waiters, stockers, cashiers, and, unfortunately here in the CNMI, carpenters, masons, machinists, mechanics, heavy equipment operators, etc., and 3) There is a great disparity between government employee wages and private sector wages to include benefits (this was critically left out in the 2008 economic impact and should now be addressed).

There are also other major critical economic factors that these studies did not include but is the major part of our economy. 1) Ninety percent or more of the businesses are foreign owned, including the mom-and-pop stores stores, tour agents, transportation services (illegal though it may be, and everyone knows it), employment or HR services, etc. 2) There is no data to see if these outfits are in fact legitimately registered or operated by E2C investors or whether they are CW workers using U.S. citizen agents or “legally licensed owners” to avoid forking out $150,000 to invest in their business operation. My guess is the departments of Commerce, Finance, and Labor never compared notes. Mind you, by the Department of Labor’s own report and gathered from USCIS’ report, there are 1,744 CW employees without specific job category. Who are they and what exactly are they doing here? Are they employing other CW workers who should not be working for them or are actually not working for them? I am sure that if there is real effort to crackdown on these and other undesirable or illegal claims we can find more CW workers who should not be here and do not qualify for CW status and, more importantly, should not be counted as needed!

How sustainable is our economy then when not only is our main tourism industry and nearly all service providers are foreigners employing foreigners? How can you take this picture and fit them into reports on economic effects of wages based on studies made in the United States where the economy is based on companies owned by U.S. citizens employing U.S. citizens/legal residents? Where are the U.S. citizens in the CNMI economy and how are their lives and employment being affected by these factors? Are we going to worry about the loss of jobs of foreign workers or should we worry about the displacement or alienation of citizens in this economy?

Here are some of my recommendations: Crackdown on all questionable CW permit holders. I am sure there are many of them out there. Find out where our people are and why are they where they are at. What would it take to bring them back home? Establish a uniform code and pay grade for all job categories based on the prevailing wage and elevate commensurate education, skills, and experience. Without this compulsion nothing will change and the “one wage fits all” will continue, except of course, the poor construction workers, if you push through with your discriminating proposal. Stop major developments at this level or scale down a little and force Chinese-owned construction companies employing Chinese construction workers to replace them with eligible H visa workers. Encourage small businesses to replace questionable mom-and-pop stores, restaurants, tour agents, etc. Have the CNMI transportation bid out public transportation service to connect inner residents to the main route. Encourage businesses to implement apprentice program in partnership with NMTI and shadow training. Increase the income threshold to qualify for social benefits such as food stamps and housing, except for the disabled. Control housing cost to make sure no one is homeless. Condemn unsafe buildings to make sure ghettos do not erupt into existence — not that it does not exist — but the idea is to get rid of them. Merge government and private sector medical and life insurance benefits so cost can be affordable. And, impose food stamp refund by garnishing income tax refund/rebate on parents whose children are living separately with the other parents on welfare and not claiming child support income.

In the end, these do not only help foreign workers truly realize their dream and may be more amenable to leaving in three years after saving real and hard earned money, but most importantly it will bring back many of our own people.

I am sure I am missing some or more things. However, all of these are interconnected, and it basically starts at earning a living instead of exploiting lives! And, maybe you all can do better with all the resources available to you that I do not have to really figure things out. These are just a few of my ideas. The work is yours, because you are elected and paid to do this. I am just your voting constituent who is demanding for our people to live well, without political intervention, in what should be our own economy and our own home! We, the people of these islands, are drowning in the economy that you all have allowed to engulf us. Give us the lifejackets to stay afloat please.

And lastly, I am reading reports on budget amendments and supplements. Please stop trying to amass political support by increasing government employment, especially those unnecessary employees directly under your wings. It is time for people to earn a life without your manipulations! Stop the handouts and make people work for a living. Choke the spoil system. The economic benefit should go directly to the people and not through politicians. In the end, you will find that you will not need to be directly involved in solving people’s personal problems. You all will be free from the same noose you wrap around people’s necks!

Juanita M. Mendiola
Via email

Contributing Author

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