Bill Hits CNMI Foreign Workers

January 11, 2013

In January 2011 CNMI House Bill 17-147 was introduced to relieve employers of foreign workers from the responsibility of paying for their foreign workers' medical insurance. The bill would make it "optional" or "voluntary" for employers to pay for their employees' medical insurance.

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.


Anonymous said...

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, UAE and the Philippines remain the least most desirable places to live and work for Filipinos. Filipinas are routinely beaten and some are beheaded in Saudi. They are not allowed to look their employer in the eye and if they even think of saying anything they are beaten even more. In the PI, Filipinos who make little money are left to die on the street. Healthcare? Bleh. If you are non Muslim in Saudi you go to a completely different hospital - like a prison ward. Don't ever compare these horrid places to the island of Saipan Wendy, there is no comparison.

Wendy Doromal said...

7:42 I did not compare those places to Saipan. You did. Saipan is U.S. soil. It is past time that workers were given basic civil and human rights on U.S. soil. The CNMI represents a black eye for the U.S. as far as the deplorable treatment of the LEGAL foreign workers.

Anonymous said...

While I sympathize with much of the conditions of the CW,the wages and the benefits are now about the same as with US workers in the private sector.
Housing has long been optional for the employer. Most employer's were deducting something for the housing anyway.
As you pointed out, the US worker can get Medicaid and food stamps though.
A US worker making minimum wage ($5.55) will also in most cases qualify for food stamps because they are under the US poverty level amount of income, along with :child care" benefits.

Within the CNMI though because of this corrupt Admin. unless you are a person with the correct name, you will not get Medicaid or off island referrals.

As I have repeatedly stated, best either give the CW some kind of status that would lead to a road to Citizenship so they are free to leave and/or be able to pick and choose their employer at will or just do away with this CW rogram altogether.
When/If this program is done away with only THEN will the CNMI employers wake up. MAYBE.

These changing of the CW laws at will by the elected that are in the pockets of many of the business is another reason that these CW workers should all be under the current US Fed. "work visa" laws that are in place as they are afforded better protection.
The USCIS has failed miserably in this NMI CW area.

BTW, just how much does it cost now to get health insurance in a group, let alone if you are under an individual plan?
I am trying to remember, it was about $300 a month for a family plan.
It was cheaper in the past to get individual coverage if no children were involved.
Maybe someone can post some numbers.

In Hawaii years ago the state required all employers to provide health insurance to their employees and the employees had the option to pay the difference for a family plan.
I do not know if any other states have this requirements.

Anonymous said...

This bill was painted by Fitial administration to show the world how badly a foreign worker can be treated in the United States of America. A few CNMI law makers talk about fairness of CNMI foreign workers without giving them any civil or basic rights. The bill proves the bad attitudes of a few CNMI law makers who do not know how to welcome foreigners or treat them equally as human beings.

Anonymous said...

It is actually illegal for the CNMI government to have a law mandating employers provide non-resident workers health insurance while not providing those same benefits to U.S. resident workers. The law is discriminatory against U.S. workers. If the CNMI wants to mandate that employers provide health insurance to ALL workers, that is fine, but giving benefits to non-resident workers and not providing those same benefits to U.S. workers is against everything the U.S. stands for.