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‘Shameful. Unconscionable. Unforgivable’

CNMI Labor allegedly ignoring needs of IPI’s stranded guest workers
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Commonwealth Casino Commission acting executive director Vicente Babauta answers questions raised by members of the House Committee on Gaming chaired by Rep. Edwin K. Propst at yesterday’s meeting in the House chamber. (FERDIE DE LA TORRE)

Sen. Edith E. DeLeon Guerrero (D-Saipan) blasted yesterday the CNMI Department of Labor for allegedly ignoring the needs of the stranded guest workers of the Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC.

As this developed, the House Committee on Gaming chaired by Rep. Edwin K. Propst (D-Saipan) agreed yesterday to start sending demand letters by next week to different agencies and individuals to get documents in connection with their legislative oversight hearing on the governance, financial suitability and compliance failures of Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC.

DeLeon Guerrero said yesterday’s committee meeting brought back memories of her time as CNMI Labor secretary when workers also protested against alleged maltreatment by IPI. She said she is extremely alarmed by the lack of participation of CNMI Labor with respect to the workers’ needs, whether it’s repatriation or recovery of unpaid wages.

The senator noted that local labor regulations do have a provision that they do not have to wait for a worker to come in and file a complaint. As a matter of fact, she said, the department itself can open an administrative case against any employer.

DeLeon Guerrero said this is what is alarming: the lack of participation from the local Department of Labor to enforce employment laws. “We cannot continue to hide behind the issue of COVID-19 situation and pretend like all of these things are not happening before our eyes,” she said.

The senator said it is not acceptable to continue in this kind of a situation to absolutely ignore the situation and abandon the responsibility of the CNMI Department of Labor to address worker issues and concerns.

“Employees’ rights must be protected. As a Commonwealth, shame on us. Shame on us for allowing to continue this in the Commonwealth. Shame on department heads who refuse to enforce the laws of the Commonwealth,” she said.

DeLeon Guerrero said the CNMI should not let this humanitarian crisis go on. “Shameful. Unconscionable. Unforgivable,” said the senator, adding that these workers have to go home to be with their families.

Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan), who is committee vice chair, suggested setting a May 21 due date for the demand letters, and that they come back to schedule hearings after that. All members agreed.

Propst said noncompliance with the demand letters will be followed by subpoenas.

With regard to the witnesses, Propst said he’s still compiling a list and that he will be meeting with each of the committee’s members to discuss the list. He said he does not want to say the names right now as he would rather discuss it with the committee members and build from there.

Sablan said the recipients of these demand letters for the documents that they be requesting and potentially for witnesses that they be summoning for hearings would include IPI, the Commonwealth Casino Commission, the Development Plan and Advisory Committee, Department of Public Works, the Commonwealth Lottery Commission, the Office of the Governor, the Bureau of Environmental Coastal Quality, and the Department of Labor.

At the meeting, Commonwealth Casino Commission acting executive director Vicente Babauta, who was with several other staff, answered the questions raised by committee members.

IPI interim chief executive officer Ray Yumul attended the meeting, but committee members did not ask him anything.

At the end of the meeting, Propst said they hope that there will be some resolution to the “stranded guest workers” of IPI who will be able to go home if they’re paid their wages. Some of the workers attended the meeting.

Propst said these guest workers are not seeking a fortune and some of them are only allegedly owed $5,000 to $6,000. “It’s really pennies [compared to] what is owed to other large companies. Collectively we’re looking at probably $1 million or a little bit more than that so that they can go home,” he said.

Propst said if IPI can’t afford this, how can they expect them to pay any of these fines that the Commonwealth Casino Commission has been levying against IPI.

Propst said it is sad to see that has happened with regard to this once promising casino. He said they cannot put all the blame on CCC’s shoulders.

“I think this government has to shoulder a lot of the blame as well. And it’s not just the Office of the Governor. That includes the Legislature, includes all leaders who pushed so quickly for an industry that seems to promising, but still had so many questions that remain unanswered,” Propst said.

He said many of them, including himself and colleagues at the House who were championing transparency and accountability when it came to dealing with this casino, were pushed aside and blasted.

“And I look today, at the situation where we’re at, if we had just listened and wise enough at that time to make the right decisions,” the lawmaker said.

Propst said he’s confident from what he’d heard with regard to that DPAC report which he cannot wait to see that there were warning signals way back that were ignored.

The DPAC, under the Office of the Governor, was created under the casino license agreement to make a determination on the construction status and timeline for the safe construction and completion of the initial gaming facility and Phase 1 of the integrated resort.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com
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