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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (March 1, 1999 - Saipan Tribune)---Some lawmakers have disputed the claims of the Office of Insular Affairs that the unemployment rate in the CNMI has risen to 16 percent, brushing aside the report as yet another attempt to hit on the island government over its labor and immigration policies.

They maintained the figures presented by OIA are preliminary findings by the statistics office at the local commerce department, and thus do not represent conclusive statements on the employment rate of the indigenous population on the island.

"It's a very, very erroneous figure. They can't even tally their own figures. I am trying to add them up. They don't add up at all," said Rep. Karl T. Reyes who is armed with records from OIA and the Department of Commerce to back up his claims.

"I was told that the figures that these people (from the statistics office) provided are not really up for publication yet because they are still finalizing them," he said. "How can these people say that they have the figures?"

Reyes added that they have also included in the figures for 16-year olds who are not supposed to be working, while there is also discrepancy in the number of foreign workers they have in their records as of December 1998, 26,379 for the CNMI and 28,236 for the federal government.

These figures, he maintained, showed that the report is open to serious mistakes. "I doubt the records very much. They have manipulated their figures," Reyes pointed out.

Senate Floor leader Pete P. Reyes, meanwhile, took OIA to task for another reason, saying they came up with a press release erroneously attributing statements to him which he denied to have made in the past.

He was reacting to the statement sent by the office, which oversees the Northern Marianas and other U.S. insular areas, to news agencies releasing its findings that showed the CNMI has an unemployment rate "almost four times of the national average."

The senator accused federal officials of making an "unsubstantiated" report, committing outright mistakes even in their press releases.

"They have to start putting their act together," he explained in an interview. "If they are not going to make it right, how can we see credibility in their figures?"

Calling OIA officials "messenger boys," Sen. Reyes questioned the findings on the unemployment figures, saying this is another attempt to back up the federal takeover agenda.

The island has drawn protest from the White House over its alleged failure to curb the number of the alien worker population in the CNMI. The Clinton administration is pushing application of U.S. laws on local immigration, custom and minimum wage standards as part of its proposed solution to the situation.

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

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