Governor says NMI has more US workers now

GOVERNOR Ralph D.L.G. Torres has informed U.S. senators about the gains made by the CNMI in connection with reducing its reliance on foreign workers.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Torres cited the Government Accountability Office study indicating that “the domestic labor force in the CNMI is nearly half of the total workforce, having increased 11 percent compared to 2009.”

In today’s CNMI economy, he added, “more U.S. workers are building greater levels of economic growth than ever before, and this success is worth continuing.”

Ralph D.L.G. Torres

Torres testified in support of S. 2325 which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and chair of the committee. A similar bill, H.R. 4689, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan. Both measures will extend the federal CW program for 10 years starting in 2019, and increase the CW cap from 9,998 to 13,000 which will then be reduced by 500 a year.

In his testimony, the governor noted that in 2009, the year after the federalization law was enacted, “the CNMI economy contracted by an astonishing 17.5 percent.”

He added, “What followed were years of severe economic depression, reduced government revenues and fewer opportunities for employment for all residents. In 2014, we began a process to revive the economy and, in reversing the years of economic decline, the real progress toward meeting the goals of the transition period started. We saw more businesses open and more jobs become available. This growth occurred within the federal control of immigration and has shown that we can work toward transitioning foreign workers and building a viable economy successfully if we do it together.”

He said “from teachers to retail workers and throughout the economy, since the beginning of the transition period, the CNMI has made gains toward the reduction of our reliance on foreign workers.”

But, he added, this is “not to say there are no improvements we can make to this program. In past years, we have seen areas in which the federal government and the CNMI can work collaboratively to build a viable economy in the Northern Mariana Islands that can recruit, train, and hire greater numbers of U.S. workers. I believe this bill was shaped upon these lessons learned and will allow us to be better partners in our shared goal of building a strong economy through a strong U.S. workforce.”

Torres said the bill “provides for protections of U.S. workers in our labor force through measures that are necessary for the CNMI to more adequately hire and retain U.S. workers. The creation of wage standards, such as the prevailing wage, was a position I supported in our most recent 902 consultations and is necessary to ensure wages remain competitive enough to attract U.S workers and that the presence of foreign workers under the CW-1 program do not reduce opportunities for U.S. citizens. Additionally, the requirement for employers to first seek a foreign labor certification is a long-awaited component of the transition period, that can allow for greater targeting of U.S. training efforts and properly transition occupations critical to the economy as more U.S. workers are recruited and trained.”

The governor said “allowing only legitimate businesses to acquire foreign labor under the CW program is an important step toward economic growth that is clean, sustainable and conducive to the safety and well-being of our community. I want all businesses in the CNMI to follow our laws, and this provision [in the bill] assists my administration in ensuring that no bad actors will be allowed an opportunity to exploit workers, circumvent our regulations, or engage in activities that harm the fabric of our community.”

Most importantly, he added, “this bill provides the CNMI and the federal government the time to grow our economy and succeed in our shared goal of building a strong and sustainable U.S. workforce. Because, even after all of the gains we have made since I came into office, in the absence of this bill, the CNMI will not be able to withstand losing half of its workforce in 2019.”

He said the GAO “has already found that without CW-1 workers in the CNMI, we stand to lose as much as 62 percent of our gross domestic product. The effects of this massive economic collapse would be profound. We estimate that if the economy contracts by this amount, we stand to lose 25 percent of our U.S. workforce as a result of business closures, and an even greater number from the outward migration of U.S. workers that will follow. With the economic contraction, our data shows a potential reduction of 59 percent in local revenue. That would potentially leave the CNMI with an annual operating budget of less than $100 million. This, compounded by our debt-service obligations and payments to our federally administered pension settlement fund, on top of constitutional obligations to our school system, could leave the CNMI government approximately $14 million to operate a government. I have witnessed tight budgets in the past. The government austerity measures. The inability to pay for gasoline for our police cars. The long lines at the food stamp office. This will be far worse.”

He said “through the passage of this bill, the CNMI can continue to grow toward higher standards of living for our citizens. This committee has experience with the difficult decisions that must be made regarding economic collapse in the United States territories. This bill allows all of us to steer away from recreating the economic hardships of our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico in the Northern Mariana Islands, without the direct expense of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Before you is an economic development bill that responsibly and dutifully protects the interests of U.S. citizens and our country and is worthy of your consideration and support.”

Accompanying Torres’s testimony is additional information regarding CNMI tax filings and the citizenship of workers, an overview of the traininsg objectives and plans for use of CW worker fees if the program is extended, and other relevant data.

Source: Marianas Variety :

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