Gov. Ralph DLG Torres is urging US. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials to review possible abuses of the CW1 program by some companies in the CNM. Torres wrote U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly to apprise the agency of these shady practices.
“We write to make you aware of a potentially exploitative scheme used by dishonest companies, which could undermine the integrity of the Commonwealth-Only Transitional Worker Program and jeopardize our growing economy,” Torres said in the letter.
Torres said his administration found out that some manpower agencies in the CNMI are applying CW1 permits on behalf of foreign workers even if there are no jobs. That is one reason why the cap was breached twice.
DHS decreases the number of CW1 permit it issues every fiscal year. The cap was first breached in fiscal year 2016, and again in 2017 where the numerical limit was filled up in the first two weeks. Operations of some business were gravely affected in both years because of the numerical cap being breached.
“After the cap was reached, some manpower companies then approach—typically construction businesses—and for a price offer to transfer the workers with CW permits to that business’ employment,” said Torres.
“Not all the permits issued to these manpower companies are successfully scalped, however. Some permits go unused. The result, legitimate companies that were crowded out of the CW application process are deprived of workers.”
He said this practice is contrary to the program’s intent. “We believe this practice of speculative acquisition to be contrary to the intent for which the CW program was created. And we expect this practice to continue, when USCIS reopens applications for [fiscal year] 2018 next month.”
Torres said his administration is taking all possible steps, under local labor and business licensing laws, to combat this practice. These includes requiring construction and manpower agencies to obtain certificates of good standing by posting job vacancy announcements with the CNMI Department of Labor.
Still, DHS and USCIS need to step in so any abuse could stop. “To reinforce the [CNMI’s] efforts to end this abuse, we ask that USCIS intensify review of all CW applicants.”
“The review could include a comparison of the number of CW permits issued to an applicant and the number of CW workers actually employed by the applicant in a given fiscal year.”
Torres suggested that what USCIS could do is to verify the location and work of the CW permit holder and match the description listed in any applicant’s prior petitions. “The agency could also require that the applicant submit a valid contract for the work at which the CW workers are to be employed or other evidence of legitimate need.”
He said the program remains vital to the CNMI economy, which is improving after years of either negative or slow growth.
“Although the number of U.S. workers has grown over the life of the CW program, the population of eligible U.S. workers on the islands remains insufficient to meet the demand for labor.”
“Efforts to recruit U.S. workers from other parts of our nation have proven unsuccessful. It is equally vital, therefore, that we maintain the integrity of the CW program so that it can continue to help fill the labor needs of our economy.”
Labor Secretary Edith Deleon Guerrero said they have received complaints and reports of possible violations, and other labor abuses but they do not discuss any or particular ongoing investigations.
“Absent conclusive investigation findings and subsequent exhausted legal and administrative processes…the CNMI DOL does not discuss any particular ongoing investigations,” Deleon Guerrero told Saipan Tribune.
“[We do] receive complaints, reports on potential violations, and other labor abuses, hence the need to proceed with the investigative process that [Labor] is guided with.. These investigations are acted upon by and through the CNMI DOL’s Enforcement Division.”
She also clarified that oftentimes, construction and manpower companies are interchangeably classified as the same line of business, where they have their North American Industry Classification System code.
There are currently 19 manpower agencies in the CNMI—18 on Saipan and one on Tinian—with NAICS code 56 with 671 employees under their business licenses. There are also currently 93 construction companies in the Commonwealth with NAICS code 23, with a total of 2,661 employees under the business license.
Saipan has 88 listed construction companies while five are on Tinian. DoL have yet to receive confirmation on the number of licensees under the NAICS code for Rota.
Latest validated numbers show that there are 10 employed in the construction industry on Rota.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (D-MP) is hoping House Resolution 339 could finally pass its final hurdle, the U.S. Senate, so it could give some relief to the CNMI’s current labor demands.
HR 339, if it becomes a law, would give temporary relief on the current workforce issues of the CNMI after the CW-1 cap was reached twice. HR 339 would increase the numerical cap to 15,000 in fiscal year 2017.
HR 339 was HR 6401 that Sablan introduced in the 114th Congress. His bill first passed the House in the last Congress but got stalled in the Senate in December last year.
He then reintroduced the bill in the 115th Congress as HR 339, at the start of the session in January and it easily passed the House without objections. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowki (R-Alaska), is now reviewing the bill.
Sablan remains hopeful the Senate would finally act on it with just eight months left before fiscal year 2017 ends. “After twice passing our bill in the House without dissent, we are working hard to get the Senate to do the same and lift the CW cap for [FY 2017].”
He, however, encourages businesses to hire and train the local workforce. “I know that the hospital and businesses, large and small, in the Marianas will start losing legacy employees, as soon as April, if more CW permits are not made available.”
“I urge employers to redouble their efforts to train, recruit, and retain local and U.S. workers. In the long run that is the only sustainable answer to our labor needs in the Marianas.”
HR 339 would also increase the education fee for each approved CW permit of a foreign worker from $150 to $200, with the funds going to train U.S. qualified workers.