Monday, December 17, 2007

173. The New CNMI Labor Law (P.L. 15-108)--part 2

I'm still tracking through the new labor law, and I'm still on the purposes. (Part 1 is posted at Post # 160.) There are some good statements in the purposes with which I agree, and a few more subtle assumptions with which I disagree.

On the good side, these statements:
"...a minimum wage rate may not be sufficient to attract citizens and permanent
residents to take a job for which they are qualified."

And this:
"Wage rates will not rise so long as cheap foreign labor is available."

And this:
"The Commonwealth has the responsibility to provide fair employment conditions
for foreign nationals, to use their labor for the purposes of economic growth
and stability for which it was intended, and to regulate labor practices in
order to protect against potential abuses."

But then the law seems to eschew the most obvious means of addressing these issues: 1) a higher minimum wage; 2) a real and enforced moratorium / limit on the number of foreign workers in the CNMI; and 3) application and enforcement of all federal labor laws; promotion of unions; and, most importantly, treatment of all workers equally.

The purposes section promotes the idea that locals need to have less competition to get the jobs they "should" have, and those jobs should be the ones for which they are "educated"--the management and professional jobs.

Some of the problems in this part of the purposes section:

"The Commonwealth's goal is to establish a regulatory environment so that jobs
are available for its qualified high school, college, and graduate school

The market place generally favors the more educated worker with higher wages, but the under-educated (those who have dropped out of school before getting a high school diploma) can contribute valuable skills and labor to a healthy economy. They should not be ignored. The policy of the government should not continue this prejudice against blue-collar work!

Another problematic statement of purpose:
"If the job is reserved for citizens and permanent residents, then the
competitive economy will cause the wage rate to rise to a level that citizens
and permanent residents find acceptable."

The CNMI Labor Department has failed to classify jobs for the past 25 years, and has allowed employers to hire foreign workers at minimum wage for jobs like accountant and engineer! We do not need to "reserve" jobs for the CNMI local residents to push up the wage. We do not need to perpetuate a two-tiered system of labor-with local workers in designated (high-paying) segments and foreign workers in the other (low-paying) jobs. This type of system invites abuse. The preference for U.S. and permanent resident workers is legitimate and needs to be enforced. But we need to enforce that preference in all job categories, and not create a two-tiered system of labor. We need our work force to work together, not separately.

There is another way of addressing the issue of artificially depressed wages in professional, management, and skilled jobs. Besides increasing the minimum wage-which encourages greater participation by everyone in the labor market, the CNMI Labor Department can set ranges/brackets of reasonable wages that must be offered for certain types of jobs if foreign workers will be used. This is less problematic on an equal protection basis than barring foreign workers outright from jobs. If our minimum wage is 50% of the U.S. minimum, then the range for an accountant's position could be 50% of what accountants earn in the U.S. When the job is advertised, resident workers can see the potential for greater earnings than minimum wage. This doesn't make us competitive or on par with the lure of the U.S., but is does provide for a balanced and consistent wage structure. And this benefits everyone. Many people who live here want to stay and willingly earn less than in the U.S. in exchange for the many beautiful and beneficial offerings the CNMI offers. The resident work force that is attracted to the higher paying jobs in the local economy can get these jobs if they want.

And yet another problem in the statement of purpose:
"The overall guiding policy with respect to foreign national workers is to
provide for a stable work force and protect due process rights without creating

It is that last bit--without creating entitlements--that I find troublesome. Our government has let in a huge number of alien workers over the past quarter century. They are not automatons, robots, who work and earn their pay and have no human life. They are people, with relationships, children, ties to our community. This bit of the purposes ignores the reality that has already occurred from the decisions of our leaders to allow this long-term alien population in the CNMI. Their children are U.S. citizens, born here. The children have entitlements that are shared by all U.S. citizens. These children, upon reaching 21, can petition their parents into the U.S. for green card (immediate relative) status. These children will vote in CNMI elections.

The fear that our local island population will be over-run by a "foreign" resident population is misdirected at the alien population. Our leaders have ensured this result by their decisions of the past, despite warnings, despite encouragements to have moratoriums on hiring foreign workers. It it too late to take back the CNMI from the natural consequences of the decisions CNMI Chamorro and Carolinian elected officials have made.

When I first arrived in the CNMI, we had a "permanent resident" law included in our CNMI code. It was repealed, on much the same thinking as now proposed in P.L. 15-108--the idea that the way to protect a cultural heritage is to deny others equal political status. This does not protect culture of any worthy kind. It only promotes evil.

One last bit before I close this long post:
"It is the intent of the Legislature that this Act shall not apply to persons
admitted to the Commonweatlh as tourists, or to persons employed illegally, i.e.
without the approval of the Department of Labor, or to those persons employing
others illegally in the Commonwealth unless specific provision has been made

The CNMI government is painfully aware that we have a human trafficking problem. Despite their repeated efforts to cover up current abuses and their insistence that the problem is a thing of the past, we keep seeing this. Especially in the sex industry--today's story is Club Jama. We've had the Red Heart Lounge, and the StarDust and Star Light nightclubs and others--all in the last two or three years.

When girls and women are trafficked into the CNMI they are almost always brought in as tourists, and then forced to dance naked or prostitute, kept locked in barracks or escorted everywhere they go.

Before P.L. 15-108, these girls and women could file labor complaints. And the Labor Department was fairly good at investigating. Now trafficking victims can't get this help. I think this is just another means the CNMI government is using to hide the reality of human trafficking in the CNMI. Workers, whether lawfully employed or tricked into unlawful employment, or foolish enough to agree to unlawful employment, are still laborers and deserve the protection of labor laws. It's not enough that the government may take up the case for the trafficking victims. They need easy access to a complaint mechanism that other workers have, too.

I'm not impressed by the purposes of P.L. 15-108. A law built on this foundation cannot be a good labor bill for the CNMI.



Jimbo Rayphand said...

I'm directed here via Jeff's blog. Thank you for writing about this issue...the most nitty-gritty info. I've gotten about PL 15-108 to particularly moved by what I think is the most underemphasized aspect of this whole issue...non-residents as human beings and not just robots without "entitlements".

Look forward to reading more.

Saipan Writer said...

Thanks, Jim.

Ronnie D. H. said...

We all needed an unbiased judges opinion on the specifics of this bill. I went through it for an hour with a dictionary and think legal documents of this caliber are too confusing and potentially misleading for the masses to give opinion. I saw this document early in the year, long before the public, and saw it as criminal in intent. Sweeping out people with labor cases without due process is unacceptable, in my opinion, and excommunicating a minor US child (even one) to Bulacan is unconscionable. The unheard seem to be better represented today than they were 6 months ago and the people here have spoken on this law.

Jimbo - please give me a call...regarding XMas party, not movement activity. Call on secure line to be on the safe side though.

Saipan Writer - my lack of salutation on your name in yesterday's article was my typo, not the newspapers error...sorry. As Bateman has correctly points out, we don’t have a big legal or administrative staff at A1.