600 BACK PAY ORDERS GO UNCOLLECTED IN MARIANAS

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By Ferdie de la Torre

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 9) - From 300, the Federal Ombudsman's Office has now collected 600 Labor administrative orders that awarded unpaid wages and other damages to guest workers but remain uncollected.

Federal Ombudsman Jim Benedetto told Saipan Tribune yesterday that he can't give a precise summary yet, but that it will be a multi-million dollar figure.

"As to what recommendations I will make to Congress for how best to assist in the collection of these awards, it will depend on our assessment, in consultation with the CNMI Attorney General's Office and the Department of Labor, of how much of the outstanding amount is uncollectible," Benedetto said.

He said he expects the numbers will show that a lot of unpaid judgments are owed by judgment-proof debtors like those who left the island long ago or are bankrupt, or who don't have any assets to collect.

[PIR editor’s note: Some 19 garment factories have closed on Saipan since 2005, many of them leaving without paying their mostly foreign employees. ]

Given the age of many of the unpaid judgments, Benedetto said it is unlikely that the bonding companies will have been given proper notice of a potential claim at the time the complaint was filed. This means that the only source available to collect from is the Commonwealth Alien Deportation Fund, he said.

However, Benedetto said it is unlikely that many workers will be able to get much relief from the Deportation Fund, for some reasons.

First, he pointed out, Public Law 11-66 authorized the use of the Deportation Fund to compensate alien workers whose employers and bonding companies left them holding unpaid administrative awards, but limited the amount they could recover to US$3,000, and they will only get the money as they depart the CNMI.

Another reason, Benedetto said, is that the Deportation Fund's primary purpose is to locate and deport illegal aliens, overstaying tourists and business permit holders, and the dependent children of deportees.

"So a lot of the Fund is used up each year by the Division of Immigration in accomplishing those tasks. There is not always a lot left over to use to compensate workers with unpaid administrative awards," he said.

The third reason, Benedetto said, is the limited Deportation Fund's assets. The Fund is financed by a US$25 contribution from the initial application fee and each annual renewal for every nonresident worker within the Commonwealth. This means that the total amount for each of the past few years is between US$500,000 to US$750,000 only, the ombudsman said.

One of the more notable cases relating to unpaid judgments involve Buddhi Lal Dhimal, a Nepalese security guard who set himself on fire at the Department of Labor on April 24, 2007. Labor had awarded him US$2,024.08 in unpaid wages and liquidated damages after he filed a complaint against his employer, Lucky Security Service. He has not managed to collect a penny of that judgment. He later died at St. Luke Hospital in the Philippines as a result of his burn injuries.

On December 19, 2007, the Ombudsman's Office collected about 300 administrative awards. Many of them cover more than one worker.

There were six cases alone that represent US$6 million in administrative awards.

Benedetto earlier said that his office will come up with a set of recommendations on how best to assist the workers, depending on how much of the money is owed by solvent employers or bonding companies that are supposed to cover the wage awards.

The U.S. Congress has expressed interest in finding out how much money is owed guest workers who were given administrative awards by the CNMI Department of Labor.

"The U.S. Congress is very concerned that workers may return to their home countries without getting the money that they have been awarded by the Department of Labor," Benedetto said.

He said this is the reason why his office is collecting the information pertaining to administrative orders that awarded guest workers unpaid wages and other damages.

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