Saturday, January 2, 1999

White House pushes
for immigration,
labor reform for
Mariana Islands

By Pete Pichaske
Phillips News Service


WASHINGTON -- Despite some reforms by new leaders, the Northern Mariana Islands remain plagued by extensive labor, immigration and human rights problems, according to a new federal report released here.

"The Administration continues to be concerned about the CNMI's heavy and unhealthy dependence upon an indentured alien-worker program and on trade loopholes to expand its economy," stated the report, issued by the Clinton administration.

The report reaffirmed the administration's support for a crackdown that has been debated in Congress for years but so far has been stymied by the Republican majority.

The crackdown includes applying U.S. immigration and minimum-wage laws to the islands, a U.S. territory, as well as allowing goods manufactured there to use the "Made in the USA" label only if 50 percent of the work was done by American citizens.

Administration officials are hoping the critical report will spur Congress to action next year.

"We are optimistic this year will be different," said David North of the U.S. Office of Insular Affairs, which oversees the Marianas and issued the report. "The problems remain the same there. If anything, they're worse."

Garment manufacturing has been the foundation for the Marianas' phenomenal economic growth in the past 15 to 20 years, but manufacturers have relied heavily on imported foreign workers. Reports of low wages, dreadful working and living conditions and widespread abuse of foreign workers have prompted the calls for federal action.

Last year, after an emotional hearing in which workers detailed the abuse, a Senate committee approved reform legislation co-sponsored by Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka, D. But the legislation never made it to the full Senate.

Akaka spokesman Paul Cardus said the report reinforces efforts by Akaka and others to do something about the Marianas situation.

"Anything that pushes this along is helpful," Cardus said.

Critics of the legislation have said they want to give the Marianas time to work out their own problems.

This week's report said Gov. Pedro Tenoria, elected in fall 1997, has made stabs at reform, including surprise raids and inspections of garment factories and construction projects, and the deporting of some illegal nonresident workers.

However, the report stated, "While the new governor's promises are well intentioned, there continues to be serious concerns about the depth, efficacy and longevity of local reform efforts."

Past reform efforts, the report noted, have died out after only a few months.

Allen Stayman, director of the Office of Insular Affairs, said recent reforms "have done nothing about the three basic problems in the CNMI."

Those three problems include the local economy's heavy reliance on temporary foreign workers; the economy's dependence on trade loopholes that allow an essentially Asian work force to ship garments duty-free to the United States and use the "Made in the USA" label; and a refusal to adopt U.S. immigration and minimum-wage laws.

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