Racing against time: CNMI contract worker program ending soon despite labor crisis

Saipan -- Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands officials are pressed for time in finding a solution to their current worker crisis, given the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker or the CW-1 program’s uncertain future. The CNMI is facing a huge labor demand in the coming years with 22 projects in the pipeline, including six new hotels and two hotel-casinos on Tinian.

The CW-1 program, which directs business owners to transition their foreign employees to other United States eligible work visas, is set to expire in December 2019.

CNMI officials, led by Governor Ralph DLG Torres, have been lobbying and pleading for the Federal government to either extend the program another ten years and increase the CW1 numerical limit to 18,000, or give long-time guest workers improved status. These recommendations were agreed to by the CNMI and federal panels and included in the 902 report submitted to U.S. Congressional leaders early this year.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, in a separate report released last month, said the CNMI economy would again crash if the CW-1 program ends with no possible solution in sight to the ongoing labor crisis. GAO representatives visited the CNMI in December last year and conducted a field study, during which they interviewed business owners, CW-1 workers, CNMI officials, and foreign groups on the potential impacts if the CNMI-Only worker visa program ends on Dec. 31, 2019.

GAO representatives also discussed the CNMI’s immigration and minimum wage issues. The U.S. Congress requested the study as part of its deliberation on whether to enact changes on the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, the law that created the CW-1 program.

Forty-five percent of the CNMI’s labor force is composed of foreign workers—mostly in the hospitality and tourism trades, the oil that turns the wheels of commerce of the Commonwealth and contributes heavily to the government’s rev