UNPAID WAGES IN CNMI: CREATING A HUMAN RIGHTS CRISIS

February 22, 2011

More CNMI companies, individuals and businesses that hire foreign workers are failing to pay their workers on time, failing to pay minimum wage, failing to pay for overtime hours worked, or not paying them at all.  The situation has become epidemic, and individual workers and their families have been hit with unbearable hardship.

There is no help available from social service agencies for a foreigner who is a victim of wage theft. Aliens do not qualify for food stamps or other federal programs. I asked one worker how his family was surviving, and he told me that the family had depleted their savings. Think about this tragedy.  A foreign worker is recruited to a U.S. territory to work, is cheated, and has to use everything that he and his wife have saved over the last 20 years to support himself and his family.  This is wrong on so many levels.

You may ask, why doesn't he complain; why aren't all of these unpaid workers complaining? If the cheated employees complain, they may get paid, but judging by the track record of the CNMI DOL the chances are extremely slim. It is far more likely that they will file a labor complaint, and sometime in the distant future DOL will issue an Administrative Order stating that the employer owes them money. They will most likely never receive the wages because DOL doesn't enforce their own orders. Perhaps the cheated workers could retrieve some of the back pay if they could afford to hire a private attorney, but because they are destitute, most cannot afford attorneys.

Because DOL and the Office of the Attorney General do not enforce the DOL-issued Administrative Orders, these new cheating employers, like the hundreds that preceded them, will be allowed to steal from these foreign workers with no fines, no jail time and no consequences of any kind. The robbed employee will be left without money or justice.  That has been the pattern in the CNMI for decades, and it is escalating to a dangerous level. There are families that need food now!

There is another reason that the cheated workers are not complaining. It is one that I have heard repeatedly over the last few weeks. The unpaid workers are in a Catch-22 situation. The transition between the CNMI and federal labor and immigration systems has created a climate of intense fear and confusion among foreign workers. The foreign workers have been told that they must have a job to stay in the CNMI after November 28, 2011. If they file a labor complaint, their employer will most certainly retaliate and fire them.  If they are jobless in November 2011, they have been told that they will have to leave the CNMI without any chance of ever being among those that may be considered for U.S. status, and most likely without any back wages. They have sacrificed for years, most for decades, and if they complain now, they throw away any chance for a secure future.

One such cheated worker asked me, "How can all of our suffering have been worthwhile, if in the end we lose everything?

What makes the situation even worse is that the employers know that the workers are so desperate to hang on to their jobs that it makes it almost too easy to cheat and abuse foreign workers. The sentiment some employers have is, "You complain and you will not have a job.  Then you will have to leave."  So employers give the workers a few dollars and promise, "next week." And when next week comes with no pay, they say, "For sure, next week."  And after two months, or three months, or in the case of the employees that I spoke to yesterday, after 6 months, they say, "Next month, for sure."

There will be no pay "next week" or "next month."  These employers are liars and cheats. They may not even have money to pay their employees. Such employers belong behind bars, but no one in authority from the CNMI and federal governments seems to be acting on this crisis.

We know that the CNMI government has failed, but the U.S. Government has also failed miserably.  It has failed to promote democratic principles in this U.S. territory. It has failed to properly fund federal law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Department of Labor.  It has failed to enforce laws on U.S. soil.  It has failed to provide equal civil rights to all who are working in the CNMI. It has failed to oversee the proper implementation of PL 110-229 by tolerating a sloppy transition that has contributed to the suffering of foreign workers and community members. It has failed to act responsibly and justly by ensuring reparations are granted to tens of thousands of cheated foreign workers. It has failed to take action against the CNMI government for pre-empting federal law. The U.S. Congress has failed to act quickly on the DOI report to grant U.S. status to those legal foreign workers who have worked in the CNMI for five or more years.

If the U.S. Congress had acted to grant status immediately after the issuance of the DOI Report, then this present wave of suffering could have been avoided.  If the Congress had granted the legal nonresidents workers who have lived in the CNMI for 5 or more years green cards or U.S. citizenship, then the CNMI employers would not be free to chronically abuse them. CNMI employers don't usually cheat U.S. citizen employees. The deportation card that they use so freely on the nonresident workers doesn't work on them.

The Rota Hotel and Casino: Cheating Workers
Workers from the Rota Hotel and Casino report that they have not been receiving their wages since September 2010, and yet officials on Rota claim to be totally unaware of their plight. I know that they were informed. An employee told me today that he spoke to someone who is a Rota Casino Gaming Commissioner. Furthermore, as the saying goes, "You spit in Sinapalu and it's felt in Songsong." Rota is a small place and everyone knows what's going on. The correct response may have been, "We knew, but we ignored it, just like the situation with not paying the Rota nurses."

The Marianas Variety reported that a Rota Department of Labor official who declined to be identified said, "There's no serious problem about the complaints because the problem was rectified." Not true. The problem is very serious and it has not been resolved. The "local" U.S. citizen hotel workers, those who have no fear in complaining, did complain about not being paid. Reportedly, the Rota DOL made a deal that they would be paid their back wages in amounts of $250 monthly.  Most of them have quit.

For the foreign workers, the problem of no pay continues and compounds each pay period. They may have been paid some back pay, but thet are still owed much more. One Rota Hotel worker told me he is now owed almost $7,000.  The employer is also not paying the employees' taxes and the workers were not given W-2 forms, so they cannot file their taxes.

According to sources, casino workers were hired from Tinian to work in the casino. They had no place to stay so the casino pays for them to stay in a hotel in Songsong Village. According to employees, they eat some meals at the Rota Hotel.  The hotel employees-slaves who are not getting paid wait on the casino workers who are getting paid. They also eat some meals at the As Paris Restaurant in Songsong Village near the hotel where they live.  The casino charged their meals and an employee said that the owner of As Paris took the Rota Hotel's van as collateral until the hotel coughs up the money to pay their tab for casino workers' meals.

Watanabe Masahiro, president of the Rota Treasure Island Casino and Hotel, reportedly invested $25 million in the Rota Treasure Island Corp. casino venture. So what happened?  The Marianas Variety reported he left the island in December 2010 looking for casino customers, but never returned.

The Tinian Hotel and Casino still owes its workers months of salary.

The Rota nurses haven't been paid since October 2010. Again, Rota officials act like they just learned about this, but that is not the case.

Additionally, an email from a nurse who lives on Saipan stated that the nurses have not received their housing allowance that was due February 1, 2010.  This is not the first time the allowance has been delayed.

Across the CNMI there are hundreds, if not thousands, of workers who are being cheated. If the cheated workers are afraid to complain until the uncertainty is settled and a working system is in place, at least they should keep a record of every hour worked, all overtime hours, and every illegal deduction.   Maybe someday down the road the pay can be collected.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is a humanitarian crisis being ignored. How many workers can fish at night, grow their own food and beg from friends to eat? The worker community supports those in need, but as more are cheated or have delayed salaries, there is less to share. People are hungry and can't afford basics. There is discrimination too. Within the same companies locals are paid and aliens aren't. Look at Tinian Casino, it's happening there. Rota Hotel too. Even in gvt. the local nurses are paid. Is it an EEOC issue?

TAGLISH said...

Just to add, some of the companies here prefer CWs because they can be easily cheated wages with no harm to these Co. They actually rejected their fellow locals because this Co. can't treat them the way they treat CWs. They've met DOL's % requirements by listing members of their family though they're not actually work in that Co.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean "creating"? There is and has been a human rights crisis. It seems acceptable for businesses to not pay their employees, and keep on doing business. Why the government has been paying their employees late for nearly a year now. What kind of example is that?

Wendy said...

Anonymous 10:15 Of course what you say is absolutely true. I should have said increase or continue! Thanks for pointing that out!

Anonymous said...

After Nov. people will need a real empoyer. Almost all non-payment issues today are foreign national owned small businesses paying minimal wages to employees who don't want to quit because they are hoping for improved status, and for maids, dancers, and farmers, that will not likely happen.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:38 I agree with some of what you said, but where is the data for this statement: "Almost all non-payment issues today are foreign national owned small businesses paying minimal wages to employees..."? I get complaints every week and they usually concerning big businesses. I think they are foreign owned,including the Tinian Dynasty and Rota Hotel. Also, complaints from nurses who work for the government.

Anonymous said...

The data is there if you look at who are the 15,000 workers who registered with the Ombudsman.

You aren't getting complaints from the "employees" of these sham employers because they are friends and relatives, or freely giving/receiving some unpaid labor in exchange for the anticipated immigration benefits.

When the USCIS regs come out next month, we'll see how many of these "employers" pass the income tax payment, gross receipts, capitalization, profit-and-loss statement, balance sheet, and other requirements to be able to hire Contract Workers at the new, increased federal permit fee levels.

There are scams everywhere you look in the CNMI.