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By Agnes Donato

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Nov. 1) - The Saipan Chamber of Commerce reiterated its call for the creation of a wage review board, in light of the latest proposal to increase the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands minimum wage [$3.05 an hour].

The CNMI's largest business group maintains that the local minimum wage should be raised to bring it to par with the increased cost of living in the islands. However, any wage increase should be done by a government sanctioned wage review board made up of representatives from the federal government (in an advisory capacity only), CNMI Labor, and local industries. The wage hike should also be staggered, the Chamber stressed.

Businesses, according to the Chamber, would review economic reports and indices to best determine each industry's ability to pay a certain wage rate.

In addition, benefits mandated by local labor law to nonresident employees should be reduced and ultimately eliminated once a CNMI minimum wage is reached at its highest level.

House Bill 15-166, the latest minimum wage bill, is currently pending in the House of Representatives. Authored by Representative Joseph Deleon Guerrero, the measure seeks to raise the threshold monthly salary for those workers exempt from the minimum wage requirement from US$300 to US$350, and gradually raise the minimum wage to US$5.25 per hour with the exception of sewers or cutters employed in the garment industry.

The House Ways and Means Committee, led by Representative Crispin M. Ogo, has been conducting public hearings on the bill.

The public hearing on Tinian was held October 17, 2006.

Tinian Mayor Jose San Nicolas offered this opinion: "Although I strongly support a decent living wage for our employees and agree in principle with properly incremented, gradual and timely increases in our minimum wage, I cannot agree with this bill because]. I believe that raising the minimum wage of a major portion of our workforce in this time of economic rebuilding would be a mistake."

The public hearing for Saipan was set for Tuesday night, October 31, 2006. The one for Rota will be held at the island's judicial complex next Thursday, November 9, 2006.

The Saipan Mayor's Office has expressed its support of the bill, saying that the increase to US$5.25 per hour must be implemented immediately.

In a privilege speech during yesterday's public hearing on Capital Hill, Saipan Mayor Juan B. Tudela said his office "strongly supports this bill [HB No. 15-166 CS1]-with some technical corrections and recommendations."

Tudela said the CNMI needs to increase the minimum wage more rapidly and employers must be encouraged to implement the US$5.25 per hour minimum wage "as soon as possible."

He said a recent study showed that most employers have been already paying the recommended increase when lodging; transportation, meals, and medical coverage costs are included.

"Regrettably, such benefits are not uniformly distributed between resident and nonresident workers," he added.

An increase in the CNMI minimum wage will not only revitalize the CNMI economy, said Tudela, but will also provide a fair and livable wage to workers and more attractive employment opportunities for local youth. He added that increasing the minimum wage would also attract more local residents to work for the private sector.

Tudela said the wage increase would meet the "rising cost of living and pay their bills. It is good not only for workers but also good for business, financial institutions, and the economy as a whole. In short, it is the right and proper thing to do." (With Marconi Calindas)

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