This was the gist of the message of Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp. chair Alex Sablan on the common misconception that the CNMI business community is only just beginning to do something about the plight of its foreign workforce.
“There is a general impression throughout the community that it has taken this long for somebody to do something. Questions like ‘why only now? Why did we wait nine years?’” he said. “We did not. We did not sleep on this.”
Sablan gave the members of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce yesterday at the Saipan World Resort a concise history of the work that the business community has been putting in to prevent the dissolution of the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker program.
“First of all, we relatively had no economy to speak of. We were in a recession for almost a decade and, while the highest government budget went up to $247 million recently, this dropped to its lowest point at $100 million,” he said
“So we couldn’t really do anything from 2008 to right about the time we had our economy growing again around 2012. …Right about that time, there were already discussions going on about the extension,” he added.
The CW program came into force in 2009 with the passage of the Consolidated Natural Resources Act and was first scheduled to expire in 2014. After five years in the system, the CNMI was able to get an extension in 2014, with U.S. Congress agreeing to extend it five more years, this time, with a sunset provision of 2019.
Sablan pointed out that, during that time, when he was president of the Chamber, there was a call to action to get workforce development programs going in the CNMI.
“We were in economic doldrums for a decade. Businesses and government had no money to do what we were talking about with respect to training programs and things of that nature. How would you think we could talk about training and development when there was no money and businesses were literally hanging on shoestring budgets,” he asked.
According to Sablan, it was only in 2013 to 2014 that things started improving for the CNMI.
“In this timeline, we were already getting our casino bill and already talking about developers coming in. We had developers on the ground wanting to put development on the ground and grow up and we were talking about more rooms, wanting to have that ability to bring in more airlines and more business,” he said.
Soon after, Congress took away the discretionary authority of the U.S. Department of Labor Secretary to extend the CW program.
In 2016, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) introduced H.R. 588, which proposed to increase the number of CW slots to 18,000; asked to extend the CW program through 2029; and proposed some type of status to long-term, lawfully present foreign workers in the CNMI. At the same time, the legislation encouraged the hiring of U.S. workers and for the CNMI prevailing wage to be paid by all employers.
H.R. 339 was adopted for fiscal year 2017, with several important amendments. This opened up 350 CW slots, allocated slots for healthcare workers and power plant operators, barred construction workers from renewing CW-1 for fiscal year 2017, and increased the education fee from $150 to $200 that will be used in the training of workforce.
“That helped but it wasn’t a cure-all,” Alex Sablan said. “HR 339 was a product which we helped create. We were in an emergency, losing legacy workers in our industry when we were climbing out of our recession.”
Fast-forward to today, Alex Sablan said the real cure-all is to go after comprehensive legislation that makes sense to the CNMI’s overall economy.
“So we are working with the [Torres] administration, Legislature, and our delegate to get this comprehensive legislation to move forward. NMBAC members are going to Washington, D.C. next week to help in the process by educating the staffers, congressmen, and senators that are willing to meet with us to educate them about our historical perspective,” he said.
“We hope that we, the CNMI, will speak in one voice, endorsing what we are trying to do in Congress. We are not passing the law. Our delegate, the Senate, the chambers of U.S. Congress are passing the law. We are just coming with recommendations,” he added.
Alex Sablan said they will knock on every door once a bill is dropped.
“We are going to go out to the villages and we are going to listen and answer every question the community has. We want to go on an education campaign,” he said. “We want the community to understand why the CW program is important to the CNMI and how this will impact one life and all.”