PROTECTING THE INTEGRITY OF THE U.S.-CNMI

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COVENANT AGREEMENT

By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (September 11, 1998 - Saipan Tribune)--- Representative Heinz Hofschneider, a proponent of the three-year limit length of stay of non-resident workers here, defended the proposal yesterday, saying the move is part of the efforts to stave off federal takeover of the NMI.

The lawmaker said the measure would address allegations by Washington leveled against the island government on its labor and immigration standards on the heels of a plan to strip CNMI powers over the local policies as provided under the Covenant agreement.

"There's more for residents and indigenous people to gain by protecting the spirit of the Covenant," Hofschneider said in an interview, "by having controlled growth rather than selling the notion of free market."

Hofschneider, who amended the initial bill proposed by Sen. Juan P. Tenorio, was reacting to mounting protests from the private sector on the legislation imposing the employment restriction on foreign workers.

The bill, under review by the Senate, has come under fire since the legislature passed it last month despite opposition by the business sector, particularly the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, which has expressed concern over its impact amid the economic downturn in the islands.

Under the proposal, guest workers who stay for three consecutive years here will be required to leave the CNMI at the end of the three-year restriction and will be barred re-entry for at least six months to seek employment again.

While he maintained legislators realize the high costs of hiring manpower from abroad, Hofschneider said it would be prudent for the legislature to act to protect the commonwealth's interests under the Covenant.

"Hasn't it ever occurred to people in the business sector to live up to the fact that if they don't want the legislature moving in the direction of the progressive minimum wage, what are we looking ahead say five years down the line," he asked, citing the federal takeover move.

"But to compromise what this commonwealth has been fighting for," Hofschneider said, "I challenge those critics who say that the three-year limit is anti-business."

He urged that businesses should start training local people to offset potential effects of the new policy if and when it is implemented.

But the Chairman of the House committee on Health, Education and Welfare, expressed dismay over the perception by residents on low-wrung job categories, especially in the service-oriented businesses, that are mostly filled by non-resident workers.

"This is where the hardest balancing act (the government must do) in terms of formulating policy without discrimination and yet allowing business to have adequate room to expand and profit," Hofschneider said.

The legislature is expected to hold a public hearing on the proposal following a dialogue with the business leaders before considering its next step.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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