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SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, June 18) – They dig roads for a living and perform back-breaking hard labor in the scorching sun — for $3.05 an hour.

But on July 25, these workers will finally see an increase in their wages that were frozen by Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) leaders at the behest of the garment industry in 1996.

A new federal law — which the CNMI Legislature cannot repeal as was the case with the 1993 local wage hike law — mandates a 50-cent hike and an additional 50 cents every year thereafter until the local rate reaches the new federal rate of $7.25 an hour by 2015.

Tom Naong, a migrant worker from Davao del Sur in the Southern Philippines, said many construction workers like him are paid $3.05 an hour.

Unlike other foreign workers, their employers don’t provide them housing facilities.

"Fifty cents will be a big help for us. It’s not really that much but we are thankful," said Naong, a father of three.

His coworker, Jason Flores, said the current wage rate could hardly feed because of the high cost of living here even as the value of their dollars continues to shrink against the Philippine peso.

"The 50 cents will really help us, especially now that the value of the dollar against the peso is getting lower," said Flores.

Loreto Santos, 54, of Tarlac, a province in the northern Philippines, said he’s been on Saipan since 1991 and this will just be the second time he’ll get a wage increase.

"I have a daughter who is taking up civil engineering (back home). Once she finishes her studies, I can retire. She’s now in her senior year and has just a year to go," said Santos who wasn’t able to study due to poverty.

Jess Carreon, 61, of Mabalacat, Pampanga, a province north of Manila , said the 50 cents will help him and his family.

Renato Macatangay of San Pablo City in Laguna, a province south of Manila, agrees.

All of them said they went to Saipan in search of greener pastures and in hopes of improving the lives of their families back home.

They were unable to finish their education due to poverty but they are now moving heaven and earth to provide college education to their children.

The five, all fathers, said more than half of their $488 monthly salaries, go to remittances.

Whatever is left goes to food and housing. They share rooms in shanties that do not have cable TV and phone lines.

"Our priority are food and housing," said Carreon.

If there are no construction jobs they fish.

With the local economy still showing no signs of recovery from its close to a decade slump, the workers are hoping that the U.S. Congress would also federalize CNMI immigration so that they could go to Guam where a construction boom is expected due to the relocation of the 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa, Japan,.

"Let’s hope they pass (the NMI federalization bill)," they said.

Hossain, a gas attendant from Bangladesh, said the 50 cents increase is "better than nothing."

Just like Filipino workers, he said he and the rest of the Bangladeshi workers are hoping and praying that the federalization would push through.

"That would give me the chance to work on Guam," said Hossain.

Resident workers are also happy about the impending increase in the local minimum wage.

Jacob Taisacan, a driver/messenger, said he’s paid $3.50 an hour.

The wage hike law will mean an additional 5 cents for him.

"It’s OK," said Taisacan.

Local students with part-time jobs at various small business establishments are also upbeat about the wage hike.

"That will help because we are not provided any housing so 50 cents is better than nothing," said Jenny.

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