- By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Sablan: H2 labor replacing U.S. workers at casino project
Hundreds of U.S. citizens who have been laid off from their jobs at the Imperial Pacific International’s casino resort project will be replaced by H-2B workers, CNMI Rep. Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan said, taking a jab at the U.S. Department of Labor for accommodating a company that has a history of labor violations.
In a privileged statement published in the Congressional Record, Sablan said he has received a report that the U.S. Department of Labor has issued 1,668 labor certifications for the casino project, allowing IPI’s contractor, Pacific Rim Constructors, to replace U.S. workers with foreign labor.
“This must stop. The people of the Northern Mariana Islands, whom I represent, are tired of having outside, foreign interests time-after-time give our islands a black eye by skirting the law, cutting corners on safety, playing fast and loose with the rules and thinking they can get away with it, beholden only to their bottom line and a handful of high-ranking local officials,” Sablan said. “The U.S. Department of Labor, after enabling IPI by granting 1,668 foreign labor certifications, must take immediate action to step up enforcement and ensure IPI maintains absolute compliance with U.S. law.”
On July 27, Pacific Rim Constructors announced the “temporary leave” of its workers, pending contract renegotiations with IPI. “The present lay-offs of U.S. workers, while work continues using H-2B workers, cannot be consistent with these employer attestations,” Sablan said.
Prior to the Pacific Rim’s announcement of the workers’ layoff, IPI announced on July 17 the recruitment of 600 workers from the Philippines to join more than 1,000 workers out of Guam who are already involved in the project.
“In order to obtain an H–2B visa, an employer must attest that they have not laid off and will not lay off any similarly employed U.S. worker, unless the layoff is for lawful, job-related reasons and unless all H–2B workers are laid off first,” Sablan said.
He said demand for foreign workers in the CNMI already exceeded the available number of CW-1 permits in 2016. Most of the approved H-2B visas were for construction workers from China who were hired for the casino project.
According to the Government Accountability Office’s 2017 report, the demand for foreign workers jumped from 9,188 in 2014, exceeding the 2016 cap of 13,299. “The result was to crowd out established local businesses, who employed CW workers and to force long-time foreign workers, who had demonstrated value to our economy and established roots in our community, to return home,” Sablan said.
IPI is building the Imperial Palace, a 14-story luxury resort with 350 rooms and over 200 gaming tables and more than 350 slot machines. The project is supposed to be completed by Aug. 31, but the company informed the Commonwealth Casino Commission that it would not be able to meet the deadline.
While acknowledging IPI’s contribution to the CNMI economy, Sablan at the same time pointed out that the Chinese company has a “troubled history of labor violations” that should have raised a red flag at the U.S Department of Labor.
In 2017, IPI subcontractors were fined $193,750 for violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act related to a death and multiple injuries suffered by workers at the construction site. This year, the U.S. Labor Department finalized a settlement with IPI subcontractors of $13.9 million for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. During a raid last year, FBI discovered that subcontractors had hired tourists to work at the construction site.
“To end further abuse of the CW program and to protect the interests of local businesses in my district and their long-term workers and their families, I introduced legislation that, among other provisions, prohibited any further use of CW permits for new construction workers in the Marianas,” Sablan said.
President Trump signed the bill into law in August 2017. “Not only did it curb the abuse of the CW permit, but it was also meant to force the federal government to make the determination, through the foreign labor certification process, of whether U.S. workers were available for any construction jobs on offer,” Sablan said.
Sablan said the replacement of U.S. workers by foreign labor pool “did not jibe with the rules for the CW program.”
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