Imported labor or the lack of imported labor due to government action in recent years has been a major drag on Guam’s economy and development in recent years. What prompted an effective Washington-imposed freeze on H-2B workers from the Philippines has never been fully explained, but recently this policy has been loosened, at least as regards projects need for the Guam military buildup.
The continued reluctance to approve workers for civilian projects has prompted bi-partisan complaints to Washington D.C., as officials have repeatedly pointed out there’s simply not a sufficient labor force to meet both military and civilian demands.
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There was further confusion in April, after the federal government overrode objections of the Department of Homeland Security to approve additional H-2B workers for Guam. The approvals come even after the Philippines was removed from Homeland Security’s list of countries approved for H-2B labor. The Philippines was removed from the list of approved countries in January, creating uncertainty in the contractor community in sourcing workers from the country.
If part of the issue is past labor abuse, then a new memorandum of understanding between federal and local labor authorities should have some impact, though similar agreements are being signed between mainland states and the U.S. Department of Labor, according to U.S. DOL Acting Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division Keith Sonderling:
“This memorandum of understanding outlines procedures to be followed by both the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division and the Guam Department of Labor in working together to cross-train staff, provide employers and employees with compliance assistance administration towards the goal of protecting the wages, health and safety of America’s workforce and conducting joint investigations and sharing information as appropriate,” Sonderling said.
Typical labor problems are underpayment of the federal $7.25/hour minimum wage and non-payment of overtime for more the 40 hours of work.
Signing off on the agreement Tuesday, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said this roadmap for proper enforcement is essential and reassuring to potential outside investors who are comfortable with clear rules and regulations.
“As we grow our economy and we see more construction happening, I just want to assure the people of Guam that we are following and complying to the best practices and standards of labor,” Leon Guerrero said.
Meanwhile, the labor law enforcers may have some more complexity to deal with, given the arrival of a U.S. based recruiter on island who is offering to provide Mexican H-2B workers. The recruiter, Veronica Birkenstock, the president and CEO of Practical Employee Solutions, had previously visited Guam with a similar message.
Said the governor, “We are being delayed and stifled because of the lack of H-2B workers. We are focusing on and targeting local workers… If Mexico’s willing to work with us, we are very open to that.”