CNMI LABOR REFORM SEEN AS ANTI-BUSINESS

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SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, May 25) – Except for certain professionals, executives and domestic helpers, foreign workers will be required to exit the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands every 54 months or four and-a-half years, and will not be allowed to transfer to another employer at the expiration of their contracts, according to a 63-page bill that seeks to change — yet again — the commonwealth’s labor laws and regulations.

House Bill 15-38 — which is backed by the Fitial administration and will be introduced by Rep. Cinta M. Kaipat, Covenant-Saipan – has been described as "anti-business" by members of the business and legal communities.

A public hearing on the bill is set for Tuesday, 5:30 p.m., in the House chamber on Capital Hill, according to Kaipat’s office.

The 63-page bill is not available online, making it hard for employers and other members of the community to review it before Tuesday’s hearing.

Alien workers who are required to exit after 54 months will not be allowed re-entry until after six months under another approved employment contract.

This limitation, however, excludes foreign national workers who are employed in professional or executive positions or domestic helpers.

A professional employee is defined in the bill as one earning not less than $30,000 per annum or $14.42 per hour.

"I don’t think any reasonable businessman who relies on foreign workers can wait for six months for those workers to return. Everybody becomes a loser in this proposal to require them to exit after a few years and wait for six months to re-enter," said Efrain F. Camacho, president of the EFC Engineers & Architects and a former president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce.

Another businessman, former Sen. Juan T. Guerrero, said the bill "certainly would be viewed by investors as very unstable and anti-business."

Guerrero, the president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, said this is his personal opinion as a businessman and not as a president of the chamber which has yet to come up with an official position on the bill.

The bill, he said, is "very restrictive, intrusive and may close down businesses."

"My personal suggestion is to table this bill until after the election. As it is, we have seen too much anti-business legislation floating around which is brought to the chamber for political or wrong reasons," Guerrero told Variety.

Besides the periodic exit rule, alien workers will also not be allowed to transfer to another employer at the expiration of their contracts.

A transfer may be granted as a remedy only pursuant to an administrative order after a hearing or court order.

Medical insurance will become mandatory, and employers may deduct from certain employees’ salaries to cover the insurance premium.

The bill, once signed into law, prohibits the filing of complaints 30 days after the last-occurring event that is the subject of the complaint, except in cases when the actionable conduct was not discoverable upon the last-occurring event.

Camacho said if he were the governor, he would push for a selective type of immigration status to give preference to foreign professionals like doctors, engineers, architects, journalists and technicians to sustain the economy.

"As long as we continue being a parochial society, the CNMI will continue to suffer. The United States, the richest nation in the world, wasn’t built by isolating itself; it was built by immigrants," said Camacho, adding a bigger population will ensure sustainability of the CNMI economy.

Former Senate legal counsel Steve Woodruff, now a private attorney, said the bill tries to "solve old problems with old solutions" and that "some people in the CNMI have the misconception that they can be pro-business by being anti-worker."

"There’s a good reason for people to be concerned about this bill. It’s anti-worker, anti-employer. It’s surprising that it’s going to be introduced by a former hearing officer for the Department of Labor," said Woodruff.

He said if the CNMI government institutes a system that provides for longer work permits for foreign workers, they can contribute more meaningfully to the CNMI’s economy.

"Without a system for long-term nonresident workers or grandfathering nonresident workers, you can’t have a fair immigration system. You can’t address old problems with old solutions," he said.

Woodruff said this kind of anti-business and anti-worker bill was rejected many times before, but lawmakers haven’t learned.

Individuals interviewed yesterday said the Legislature should have made copies of the bill available online so they can meaningfully comment on the measure on Tuesday.

Guerrero hopes that there will be discussions on the specific provisions of the bill.

"It is the business community that provides the mainstream tax revenues. I believe that the Legislature has forgotten this part of the equation," he said.

Camacho, for his part, questioned the kind of businesses that the Fitial administration and the lawmakers listen to.

"Businessmen I know do not have problems with raising the minimum wage or having the federal government extend federal immigration to the CNMI," he said.

The bill seeks to "maximize employment opportunities" for local residents — who prefer to work for the government because the private sector pays only $3.05 an hour.

Under the bill, all worksites with alien workers will be inspected at least once a year without advance notice to the employer. It also requires employers to make use of electronic filing and access to labor applications and documents.

There will also be a mandatory orientation for foreign workers arriving in the CNMI. The sessions are supposed to include workers’ rights, the roles of the CNMI Department of Labor, the Federal Labor Ombudsman’s Office and other agencies.

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