WEAK U.S. DOLLAR TAKES TOLL ON CNMI REMITTANCES

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SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, June 13) – The weakening of the U.S. dollar versus the Philippine peso and the decline in the number of garment workers in the Mariana Islands are combining to depress the total amount of remittances that alien workers are sending to their home countries.

[PIR editor’s note: According to files at the CNMI Department of Commerce web site, between 1999 and 2002, there were about 13,000 work permits issued yearly to Filipino workers on Saipan. Documented remittances for the island between 1999 and 2003 averaged US$80 million a year.]

For overseas Filipinos, including thousands in the Commonwealth, a stronger peso is not good news. The exchange rate currently places the dollar at 46 pesos-a steep drop from some two years ago when it was trading at 55 pesos. This has forced some to increase their remittances to maintain the previous amounts they've been giving their families.

That what's happening with Stephen Ancheta, a graphic artist who has been on Saipan for eight years. He said the higher peso exchange means that he has to increase his remittances, resulting in less money for his personal use on island.

"I usually have a fixed amount that I send home but since the peso is higher now, I have to adjust and increase my remittance to keep the same amount for my family's use. It's very challenging," he said.

Mila, a mother who sends money to her children in Pampanga, Philippines, said she has to do the same: increase the amount of remittances.

"What happens is I can't save because I have to send extra money for my children. I send US$500 monthly. Two hundred dollars go to my kids and the rest are for other obligations I have back home," she said.

Max Valencia, a maintenance worker who has been on island for 16 years, said he used to send US$300 monthly to his family in Bulacan, the Philippines.

"Now, I have to make it US$400. I only have a little left here. I can't compromise my family because my two kids are in college and high school," he said.

For others, though, they have maintained the same amount they've been sending or they are holding on to their dollars in the hopes that the exchange rate would still go up.

A Filipino worker who requested anonymity said she has no choice but to send the same amount because "my pay never changed."

"Although it's hard for my family, I really have no choice but to give the same amount because I have no extra money here. I know that they need more but I can't afford it," said a worker who requested anonymity.

Her situation seems to be shared by many other Filipino workers as reflected in the decrease in remittances received by some remittance centers on Saipan.

The PNB remittance center in Susupe, for example, said that recent remittances showed a declining trend.

"It went down a little. People still send money but in lesser amounts because they are waiting for a higher exchange rate. They want a P50 to dollar [exchange rate]," said staff Lorie Manansala.

PNB Susupe's rate as of yesterday was P46.20 to US$1.

Manansala said the overall economic crunch, which has resulted in the displacement of some foreign workers in the CNMI, also impacted remittances.

She said displaced workers would naturally just bring the money home themselves rather than through remittance centers.

Asia Pacific Express in Chalan Kanoa also noticed a decrease in the remittances of Filipino workers.

"There's some decline. Some workers say they have no more to send home. Others say the exchange rate is too low," said APEX marketing supervisor Cely Lizama.

Micronesia Money Exchange said Filipinos in general still send the same amount of money to their families.

"It's the same because their salary remains the same. It's the same amount but lower value since the peso is a bit stronger now," said MME's Malou Berueco.

Micronesia Money Exchange's rate yesterday was US$46.20 to US$1.

The peso exchange rates on Saipan reached a low of P44 to a US$1. In prior years, the exchange rate reached a high of P56 to US$1.

Data from the Department of Commerce showed a decline in remittances during the first quarter of 2007.

Commerce said a total of US$24.7 million was remitted out of the CNMI from January to March this year. During the same period last year, the figure was US$25.1 million.

The decline is also being attributed to the closure of several garment factories on the island. With the repatriation of hundreds of garment workers, the total remittance figure would understandably go down.

Prior years showed an increasing trend of remittances annually. In 2003, money sent out of the CNMI through the remittance centers totaled US$80.5 million. It went up to US$94.6 million in 2004, US$112.6 million in 2005, and US$102.2 million in 2006.

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