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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (April 23, 1998 - Saipan Tribune)---Amid the clutter of cement and steel, Ric Santos slowly thrusts his drilling equipment into a base as his arms, strengthened by years of working in a construction company, continue to pound harder.

The 38-year old stocky man pauses for a second to wipe sweat off his face, which has been covered by a piece of towel to protect it from the scorching sun.

His coworkers are oblivious to the jabbering sound of the drilling equipment as they flutter about at the construction site of the half-completed building that will house the American Hard Rock Cafe and an array of luxury boutiques.

Since July, Santos has been working six times a week at the Garapan site with nary a complaint. In fact, he longs for the few occasions when his boss gives him overtime work as it means extra income for his family back in his native Philippines.

"It's been comfortable," he says, describing his life on Saipan as one of the estimated 40,000 Asian workers in the Northern Marianas --which has become an economic haven for them.

Mired in poverty in his hometown in Pampanga, in the northern Philippines, Santos is trying to save a few precious dollars to buy a vehicle, which he plans to convert into public transport so his family can supplement his income.

Although his wife is a government employee in the Philippines, Santos says her income is not sufficient to support their two children, who are already in school.

Most of his paycheck is remitted back home.

"I miss my family," he quips, "but I need to work so that I can give them a good future." His earnings from his first job on Saipan in 1991 funded a modest house which Santos built when he returned to the Philippines in 1993.

Three years later, he came back to Saipan to work for the Gozum construction firm which led him to the major expansion project undertaken by the Duty Free Shop complex in Garapan.

While he is not sure of his future when the project is completed late this year, in light of the downturn of the CNMI economy, the former wood carver considers his work here as "God-sent."

"I worked in Libya in 1988 as a contract worker. You cannot imagine the loneliness of working in a desert plus the non-stop load of the job. Saipan is a lot better and I hope I stay here for a while until I save enough money," Santos explains.

A question of money: Many of the thousands of non-resident workers in the commonwealth are lured into the islands by the promise of higher pay than what they can earn in their native countries.

In the wake of allegations of labor abuse and increasing attention accorded the Northern Marianas, the islands still remain an attractive place for these so-called economic refugees, mostly coming from the Philippines, China and Bangladesh.

Ahmed, a Bangladeshi security guard, says he finds nothing wrong with trying to make a living through honest work in a foreign land like Saipan.

"We just want to support our families in Bangladesh. The money we earn here is not for us alone," the 29-year old worker explains. "We came here because our skills, even as security guards, are needed by the local businesses."

Many in the private sector acknowledge the lack of manpower to support the local economy, especially the labor-intensive tourism and garment industries which pump more than one billion dollars in income into the commonwealth each year.

Thus, thousands of workers are hired each year for jobs which the local population is unable to fill.

Niaz Khan, 31, from Pakistan believes non-resident workers are not taking away jobs from the indigenous people.

"Most of them will not want to work in the construction. They want a better paying job," he says. Khan, now a taxi driver who caters to tourists, got a construction job when he came to the island in 1995.

Like the other non-residents, the Pakistani national sends money to his parents in the central Asian country to help them tide economic hardships.

A technician, Khan fled his country in search of that fabled "American dream" which in a way he has found on Saipan. "Anyone who comes here surely wants to earn money," he explains. "And he will if he works hard."

A different world: Shin, who works for UIC garment firm, so far enjoys her three-year stay on Saipan which she considers a "learning experience" because of the melting pot of different cultures.

She has found friends among Chamorros and Filipinos whom she has been working with since coming here in 1995.

"I am happy here," Shin says now, after disclosing that her first four months were agonizing for her because she missed her daughter and husband in Shanghai, one of the industrial cities in China.

Saipan beckoned when she found out that a job was being offered here. Although her parents are both medical doctors and her husband is a government employee in China, Shin felt she needed to expand her wings.

"In my stay here, I have learned so many things about the different cultures. Unlike when I was living in Shanghai, I only got to know them through reading books," she says.

She also remits money from time to time back home despite the fact that her family can very well afford to support themselves "I just save my money for my future," Shin explains.

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