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  • By Jonathan Perez, For Pacific Islands Times

More work, less workers

Saipan —Once the clock turns 12 midnight on Dec. 31, 2019, a cloud of uncertainty would hang in the air in the Northern Mariana Islands. That is the expiration date of the CNMI-only transitional worker nonimmigrant visa program, better known as “CW-1.”

The CW-1 program allows eligible foreign laborers to work in the CNMI while giving their employers ample time to change some of their hiring practices toward acquiring more from the local workforce or transitioning their guest workers to suitable U.S. work visas if ever they want to keep their services.

The program, a unique work visa classification from other U.S. states and territories, encourages businesses and other companies to employ more local residents or U.S. citizens, eventually allowing foreign workers to find alternative immigration status before the transition period ends. It was established through the 2008 Consolidated Natural Resources Act or Public Law 110-229 that puts a cap on the number of foreign workers that decreases every year until it reaches zero after 2019. The foreign worker permit system was only a five-year program that began in 2009 and should have ended in 2014 but the US Citizenship and Immigration Service granted the CNMI government another five-year extension that’s why the 2019 deadline.

Gov. Ralph Torres, however, along with CNMI Delegate Gregorio Sablan and the business community—the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, Society for Human Resources Management, and Strategic Economic Development Council—are lobbying for another 10-year extension and increasing the CW-1 cap to 18,000 as the CNMI faces labor shortage with all the ongoing developments and heavy investments taking place.

Construction boom

Best Sunshine International is building a casino and hotel resort, the Grand Mariana, which is the first phase of the Hong Kong-based conglomerate’s multi-billion dollar project in the CNMI. BSI will also be taking over the land where the Mariana Resort & Spa and Mariana Country Club is located where they would transform the property into another hotel and waterpark, which is part of phase two project.

Kensington Hotel, owned by E-Land Group of Korea, opened in July after more than one year of refurbishing the old Nikko Hotel in the northern side of Saipan. Two more hotels are being developed, one of which is beside the Pacific Islands Club-Saipan in San Antonio and another one in Capital Hill going up the Governor’s Office.

On Tinian, the Macau-based Alter City Group is constructing Plumeria Resort in Puntan Diablo cove while Bridge Investment is developing a 1,800-square property in Kammer Beach into a $150-million Tinian Ocean View Resort. International name-brand restaurants and other shops have also been sprouting on Saipan.

If the cranes, cement trucks, rigs, and busses that transport workers to the construction sites would be the gauge, it might be safe to say the CNMI is slowly coming out of a recession that hit the commonwealth more than 10 years ago. Economic activity and development started slowing down in the early 2000s. At one point, it was at a standstill after one by one the garment factories, which pumped in huge amounts of dollars to the CNMI government’s coffers, closed down following the expiration of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in the early 2000s.

Section 902 talks

The Torres administration brought up the CNMI’s labor and immigration issues to a series of Section 902 talks with a federal panel led by Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Areas Esther Kia’ana. At the U.S. House of Representatives, CNMI Delegate Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan has introduced H.R. 588 proposing to amend P.L. 110-229. The proposed amendments include an extension of the CW-1 program up to 2029; inclusion of the CNMI in the visa approval process; and increase in visa cap to 18,000. The Torres administration believes this proposed figure is viable enough to sustain the Commonwealth’s renewed economic activity.

The CW-1 issue, however, became a touchy subject for some of the local residents and U.S. citizens, who felt that businesses favor cheap labor by using foreign workers.

But labor cost in the CNMI is no longer as cheap as it used to be. The hourly minimum wage has increased from $6.05 to $6.55. The next tranche — another 50 cents — will be implemented next year. The staggered wage hike will continue until the hourly rate reaches the federal level of $7.25 by 2018. However, a pending bill by Rep. Angel A. Demapan at the CNMI Legislature wants to skip the gradual increase and move the minimum wage straight to $7.25. It has passed the Senate with amendments and the House is now reviewing it.

The CNMI government and the business sector have been advocating for changes in labor and immigration policies to help the local economy’s recovery from years of recession, which was compounded by the devastation brought by Typhoon Soudelor last year. Aside from asking the federal government to ease some of the restrictions, they are also encouraging to build a local labor pool, especially those graduating from local high schools, those who finished vocational courses at the Northern Marianas Trades Institute, and the Northern Marianas College. They are also encouraging local residents, who are either finishing college or residing in the mainland to come back home to work and share the knowledge they acquired. But the government had repeatedly said that even with those combined, they would still face labor shortage that’s why they’ve been asking the federal government for some leniency. They are currently waiting for the decision and since it is an election year, they could expect some answers after the new administration settles in next year.

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