January 11, 2013
The bill was introduced by former Rep. Diego Benevante with the incorrect assumption that since the minimum wage had increased to $5.05, foreign workers would now be able to afford to purchase their own health insurance.
The bill passed the House in April 2012 by a 16 - 0 margin. Just this week, while the focus on Saipan's Capital Hill was on the governor's controversial "pity me themed" State of the Union Address, the bill passed the Senate.
It is a sad commentary on the CNMI that the legislators claim that removing this benefit from foreign workers will be "fair" for the local and foreign workers. The bill reads, “The removal of the mandated benefits will create fairness for all employees within the Commonwealth, nonresident and resident workers alike.”
This bill will not create "fairness." Fair would be viewing the legal, longterm foreign workers as future citizens or at least upgrading their status to secure their future. Very little about the CNMI foreign worker system past or present is "fair", moral or just. In what way is it fair to live and work in a community for 10, 20, 30 years or more and remain a part of the disenfranchised underclass?
An employee's status should have been considered in qualifying the "fairness" of removing this important benefit. U.S. citizen workers who cannot afford health insurance are covered by Medicaid and qualify for other U.S. programs such as food stamps. Foreign workers do not qualify for such programs.
Even though employers were mandated under the law to pay for the insurance, not all did. It is common knowledge that many of the employers who did pay for their foreign workers' health insurance, illegally deducted the costs from their foreign employees' paychecks. In a way, the bill legitimizes the illegal practice that many small employers have been following for decades.
This bill will not only greatly harm the foreign workers, but it will harm the economy, the health and the well-being of every CNMI resident. Almost every foreign worker in the CNMI earns less than $11,000 annually and struggles just to pay essential bills. The vast majority cannot afford to purchase health insurance.
With the passage of this bill, the foreign workers who were formerly covered by health insurance who have chronic conditions or become ill have few options. Many will stop seeking professional health care treatment; some will go to the Commonwealth Health Center to be treated and will not be able to pay their bills, further burdening the near bankrupt CHC.
People without health insurance cannot afford preventive health care checkups. An increase in contagious diseases is sure to hit the islands in the years to follow. Expect to see tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases increase among the population. Also, expect to see more foreign workers with undiagnosed illnesses that develop into serious health risks, even death.
Employees who cannot afford to be treated for illness or have untreated chronic disease, such as diabetes, perform at lower levels and have to take more sick days. This puts businesses at a disadvantage also.
Over the years, CNMI employers have taken away more and more benefits from their foreign employees. Most workers no longer have the former benefits of free housing, food and transportation to and from work. This will be a blow that they may not be able to endure.
The CNMI is probably one of the least desirable destinations for foreign workers. It offers low wages, poor benefits, rampant wage theft, and a failure to prosecute criminal employers who violate labor laws. It has a poor healthcare system. The CNMI in noted for its corrupt and ill-administered law enforcement agencies that ignore crimes committed against foreigners, including assaults, murders and rapes. Finally, it has a flawed guest worker program with no pathway to citizenship.
The future for CNMI foreign contract workers seems less secure and more shaky as time passes. If the CNMI continue to chisel away at benefits, while at the same time escalating the discrimination, it may find itself unable to keep current foreign workers or attract new ones.