Labor News From the CNMI

March 12, 2008

Exit Requirement and Conflicting Messages

The Marinas Variety reports that Deanne Siemer, DOL volunteer, and Deputy Secretary of Labor, Cinta Kaipat, repeated their statements on P.L. 15-108. Deanne Seimer said, "Please don't think we have an agenda of sending the guest workers home." Yet at the same time they are saying they must exit so residents have a chance to fill their positions.

They discussed the exit requirements:

During a forum with employers and representatives at the multi-purpose center in Susupe yesterday, the Department of Labor’s management team said the new labor law provides incentives to employers who hire more U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

The CNMI government enacted two similar stay-limit laws in the past, only to repeal them later. Labor Deputy Secretary Cinta M. Kaipat said employers are given flexibility to comply with the stay-limit rule.

Employers, she said, can allow some of their guest workers to exit the CNMI even before the end of the three-and-a-half-year employment period.

Employers whose workers have to exit for six months will have to consider the applications of the U.S. citizens and permanent residents that will be referred by Labor, Kaipat said.

But the law also allows key employees chosen by employers to be exempted from the exit rule.

Kaipat said they are looking at the hardship issues of non-resident workers with U.S. citizen children having to exit every 3.5 years.

"Labor will also consider the “hardship” that the stay-limit rule will impose on certain guest workers, Kaipat said. These include guest workers with U.S. citizen children who have nowhere to go in their home country.

“We really are trying to look at their situation, trying to see how we can accommodate them,” Kaipat said.

Guest workers of compliant employers, she said, are required to exit only once for 60 days any time between now to the last day of the three-and-half-year period. For example, guest workers with U.S. citizen children can choose to exit the CNMI during their children’s school break."

Sounds great, but how would a guest worker who earns $3.05 - $3.55 an hour be able to even afford the airfare and expenses involved with bringing an entire family to return to their homeland for six months whether it was school vacation or not? How would the family support themselves without pay? What incentive would there be for them to ever return?

The CNMI government has a history of enacting labor laws and then repealing them. Is this what will eventually happen to the exit requirement? The officals also have a history of saying what is politically advantageous at the time. After the Unity March Kaipat was quoted in the Marianas Variety:

"She added that foreign workers were not brought here to “build our economy — we opened it up for you. You wanted jobs and we gave you that opportunity to come in and work. We have the right to decide how many people to bring in…if it’s so bad here, why is it so hard for anyone to leave? Why blame us for wanting to employ our local citizens? That has been contemplated since 1983. We are only to bring in workers that we need. It’s our prerogative.”

The administration is sending conflicting messages. They have lobbyists in Washington, D.C. going from Senate office to Senate office saying that they require 18,000 foreign workers for businesses and the CNMI economy to survive. This is one argument they use against federlization. They falsely claim that the bill would totally lead to the elimation of all foreign contract workers. (Even though they have been informed by Senate staff that this is not the case.) On the other hand, they have openly opposed the guest workers having status. They even celebrated the removal from the legislation of the "grandfathering provision" that would have allowed semi-status to the guest workers.

What the CNMI government and businesses really want is a steady supply of workers who are a disenfranchised underclass with no political rights, no vote, and no ability to serve on juries. They want a never-ending supply of workers to serve their needs. It doesn't matter who they are as long as they are skilled, and are available to fulfill their needs. Wouldn't it have made more sense to support status for the long-term guest workers and parents of U.S. citizen children to ensure an adeqaute work force, and to provide security for the long term guest workers and their families?

In today's Marianas Variety, a letter to the editor by Carlito Marquez discusses some of the problems employers and guest workers face with the provision in PL 15-108 for businesses to hire a higher percentage of resident guest workers.

Former Garment Workers Sue

Attorney Stephen Woodruff is representing 5 former garment employees of Mirage Saipan, Ltd. The lawsuit states that the Filipino workers were terminated "due to their old age and national origin." This has been a wide-spread complaint of Filipino workers in the last two years, and many have filed EEOC complaints.

The workers were told they were terminated because of performance but according to the Marianas Variety article:

"The complaint stated that shortly after receiving their termination notice on July 19, 2004, Magayaga questioned her line supervisor, Miss Liang, why they were terminated when they had been performing their job in an exemplary manner.

Liang told Magayaga that “one Filipino out, all Filipinos out,” the complaint stated.

The stated ground for termination was “not true because they were performing their task in a satisfactory manner and they were not previously informed about any performance issue by the defendant or any of the Chinese supervisors, particularly any failure to meet the demand of the production,” the plaintiffs stated.

They added that most of the Filipino contract workers were terminated while most of the Chinese workers were renewed and were hired from other garment factories and from China.

The complaint also stated that during their employment, Magayaga, Escobar and Africa were repeatedly subjected by their Chinese supervisors to various forms of ridicule and harassments on account of their age."

Some guest workers have concluded that the reason for eliminating positions for Filipino workers was that the Chinese government and travel agencies get a cut of every Chinese worker recruited to the CNMI. Others have suspected that the factories themselves got a kickback from recruitment fees. The Federal Ombudsman, Jim Benedetto remarked on the problem of recruitment fees in May 2006:

"We also know that some of the agencies approved by the Chinese government to recruit workers for jobs in Saipan are affiliated with garment factories that operate here on Saipan. This setup is a powerful one-two punch for the factories. They get paid a portion of the recruiting fee for each worker, who is reluctant to complain about labor violations because of the recruiting debt hanging over his head."