Gov. Ralph DLG Torres knows there’s only less than three years left on the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker or CW1 visa classification. That program ends on Dec. 31, 2019—about 31 months away.
Torres made known the CNMI’s current worker crisis when he testified in last week’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in connection with House Resolution 339, introduced by Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (D-MP), in Washington, D.C.
HR 339 or the Northern Mariana Islands Economic Expansion Act aims to increase the CW1 numerical limit to 15,000 in fiscal year 2017. That adds 2,002 more slots to the 12,998 limit set for the current fiscal year that is already maxed out since October 2016.
One solution Torres sees is the recommendation the CNMI panel made during the 902 talks: give long-term foreign workers in the Commonwealth improved or CNMI-only status
“That’s always been an issue [improved status]. When we’re at the Senate, we did come out with a proposal that long-term residents deserve an improved status. I’ve always been an advocate for it and continue to advocate for it,” Torres said in yesterday’s proclamation signing of Public Service Recognition Week at the Pedro P. Tenorio Multi-Purpose Center in Susupe.
That and the current issue of workers that entered the CNMI under the visa parole program are the current labor problems that have been hounding the Commonwealth. The issue of tourists being able to work on Saipan reminded everyone of the days of the then-garment industry, when the CNMI got a reputation for unfair labor practices.
Torres, in last week’s hearing, said he knows the feeling of all local employers and the families—whether foreign workers or U.S citizens—about the CNMI’s future. “I hear the concerns of the business community and I feel the anxiety among the many families, both U.S. citizens and foreign, over what the future may be for the islands.”
“I too am concerned over the ability for our hospital to operate effectively, over retaining government resources to improve public services, and maintaining an economy that will help alleviate the widespread instances of poverty,” said Torres.
He informed committee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that he’s obliged to work with her committee in finding solutions on the issue and what he think is best for the CNMI and its people. “It is my obligation to do all I can to offer my wholehearted support to work with your committee and the U.S. Congress in finding out what is possible.”
“How your concerns can be addressed and, how we can agree to allow our small islands the opportunity to improve and stand on our feet among our fellow members of this great American community,” added Torres.
Torres said the current crisis would have a huge impact on the CNMI’s economy, which has been recovering since years of slump and inactivity. “The worker crisis is a huge problem. In any economy, the workforce drives it. We won’t be able to grow our economy without the workforce that we need.”
He added that the CNMI faces a lot of challenge when it comes to labor-related matters, one of which is the issue on overstaying tourists being able to work on Saipan and have yet to get paid.
“They [Senate] acknowledged that in D.C., but I also acknowledged that we do have our own challenges. I also acknowledged a lot of good things that happened on the island and we have 12,998 contract workers that are treated right and treated fairly.”
Torres said the issue of overstaying tourists that worked illegally started when they lied while being interviewed by Customs and Border Protection officers when they said they are only here to visit the islands and then it was later found out that they’ve been working.
“We encourage all tourists that come here that they answer questions appropriately. That’s one way for us to help address these issues. I’m also hopeful that the Senate heard our concerns. They have their own concerns and they raised them. We also have our own concerns. We responded to their questions and some of the concerns on how the government handles it,” added Torres.
Torres said the CNMI labor issue, whether about overstaying workers or illegal employees, is still a smaller problem compared to countries like Australia or Italy. “It is our issue here and we’re not denying it. In any aspect, we are also acknowledging it. But we also need to acknowledge the good things that have happened here.
“We’re making sure that we are addressing these issues,” said Torres, who was accompanied by Senate President Arnold I. Palacios (R-Saipan) and House Speaker Rafael S. Demapan (R-Saipan).
Addressing the issue
He sees good signs over what was discussed at the Senate hearing. “Through these discussions, they came up with good proposals and will be working with legislation on how to approach the bigger part of the construction company and any illegal workers that come in as tourists.”
Torres said they are also looking to impose fines and some form of sanctions on companies that bring in tourists to work in the construction industry. “Locally, we’re definitely looking into giving some fines or disbarment from our agencies, [barring them] from opening up other businesses or agencies here. Those are the things that we got to work on with our local legislators.
Another suggestion is for them to pay a bond. “Bonding or special registration for construction companies and workers.”
“Now that we know what exactly what has transpired, this is the time where we are meeting to make things happen in addressing our current issues. Now we are looking at the proper way of addressing the issues.”