CNMI, FEDS SHOULD WORK TOGETHER: SENATOR HARKIN

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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (August 19, 1999 – Saipan Tribune)---U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said the federal government and the Commonwealth should work together to deal with labor problems on the island, but added he has not decided yet whether a federal takeover would be the best solution.

"This is a very serious problem and hopefully working together we can reach a solution," he told reporters after laying a wreath at the American Memorial Park yesterday.

The visiting senator, who is a member of the Senate Labor Committee, said he was also concerned about the working conditions in the Northern Marianas where there is a large population of alien workers coming from nearby Asian countries.

"If we don't address some of these labor problems and guest workers' problems, you will be looked upon as a colony. The last thing America needs is a colony," added Harkin.

On island for a few hours, the senator flew from Guam to meet with local and federal officials as well as tour some garment factories on Saipan.

He held talks last night with Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio, Lt. Gov. Jesus R. Sablan, Senate President Paul A. Manglona and other CNMI officials at a dinner before departing for Indonesia where, according to his aides, he is scheduled to do a survey on elections in East Timor.

Tenorio, in an interview before attending the closed-door meeting with Harkin, declined to say what issues he would discuss with the U.S. Senator.

"I was fortunate to meet him. Perhaps we will be discussing some of the issues. He is going to let us know if there is any problem that he has identified," said the Governor.

Harkin, a member of the Senate Labor Committee who is closely associated with organized labor, spoke to a number of nonresident workers as well as to some garment factory owners during his brief visit here.

He said there are still problems that need to be addressed, including working conditions on the island. "Anytime that you have an industry, like garment, that brings in workers from other countries for a short time, it's bound to create problems anywhere," Harkin explained. "We just have to start thinking of some ways of solving those problems and working towards an industry that can still provide support for Saipan but which will also respect workers' rights," he added.

Asked if he considers the pending legislation in the Congress that will strip CNMI authority over local immigration, minimum wage and custom standards a solution, Harkin said he has to look further into the issue.

"I'm looking at that. I myself have not come to any decision yet. I have been told both sides of story on that. I will be looking at it even closer," the Senator pointed out. But he said he finds it an "odd arrangement" that Guam's immigration is under federal control, while the CNMI administers its own as provided under the Covenant.

"We've got to take a look at it. What the resolution of that is, I don't know," added Harkin.

The Clinton Administration, alleging failure by the island government to curb the number of foreign workers in the CNMI, has sought federal takeover, but Commonwealth leaders have warned the move would have devastating impact on its wobbly economy.

Meanwhile, Harkin said Washington should increase its military presence in the region by expanding its facilities and base on Guam and suggested that "Saipan could also be used for those purposes."

"We need more presence in the Asia-Pacific. We need to have more facilities," he said. "We might be able to look at what we can do in the future here."

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

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