Tuesday, June 19, 2007

An Open Letter to the House and Senate Members, 15th Commonwealth Legislature

To The Honorable Members of the House and Senate:


Within the next few days or so, each of you will be asked for your vote to pass H.B. 15-38: The Commonwealth Employment Act of 2007, without any amendments. A few weeks ago, we gave you a slide presentation on the proposed revised version of the draft labor reform bill. We made a detailed record of all of your comments and suggestions at that session. Since then –

* We have held a public hearing to get additional input from the people of the community.

* We have considered and implemented the recently-released recommendations of the Office of the Public Auditor and the private-sector Jobs Study Committee as to jobs for which citizens and permanent residents should be afforded employment preferences.

* We have consulted with the Chamber of Commerce and HANMI to get input from the business community.

* We have requested and received comments from the Federal Ombudsman, from lawyers representing foreign national workers in the Commonwealth, and from the Philippine Counsel General.

* And we have worked extensively with the lawyers from the CNMI Department of Labor to get the bill into final shape.

I think nearly everyone realizes that we can and should do better in providing a practical, fair legislative framework for employment in the Commonwealth. Nearly all of the comments we have received have been offered in this spirit – of improving what we have and making a fair balance with respect to the interests of citizens and permanent residents, businesses, foreign national workers, and the government agencies with enforcement responsibilities.

Joint legislative session: These are the principal changes we implemented with respect to the comments we got at the informal joint legislative session:

* Devised a better system for health insurance for foreign national workers

* Worked out a better system for bonding of employer obligations for foreign national workers

* Limited the exceptions to the preference for citizen employment in the government

* Implemented compliance with the Resident Workers Fair Compensation Act

We also accommodated nearly all of the very good suggestions for smaller changes that we got at that session.

Local resident workers: This is what we did with respect to the concerns of citizens and permanent resident workers expressed at the public hearing and in other comments we have received:

* Implemented the Public Auditor's recommendations with respect to job categories in which citizens and permanent residents get an employment preference. This expands the private sector preferences significantly

* Expanded the preference for government hiring of citizens and cut back on government hiring of foreign national workers

* Improved the functionality of the existing moratorium on hiring foreign national workers

* Provided for the right to sue if a qualified citizen applicant is turned down in favor of a foreign national worker

Local businesses and employers: This is what we did to accommodate the concerns of local businesses and employers expressed in our meetings with the Chamber, HANMI, and others:

* Provided flexibility to employers to make hiring, termination, and exit decisions

* Eased the regulatory burdens on small businesses employing fewer than 10 full-time employees

* Provided incentive exemptions to regulatory requirements for employers who exceed the 20% requirement in categories of jobs as to which citizens and permanent residents are available and are most likely to consider as attractive opportunities

* Provided affordable options for health insurance and bonding so that small businesses and employers of domestic helpers are not adversely affected

Foreign national workers: This is what we did to improve the fair employment conditions for foreign national workers:

* Provided better, more practical protections against exploitation by recruiters and employers so that every worker who comes to the Commonwealth will have a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities under our system

* Accommodated the comments received from the Philippine Counsel General

* Accepted certain recommendations of the federal ombudsman with respect to inspections and enforcement

* Reduced fees for filing a labor complaint or appeal to make it less costly to access the administrative hearing system

The CNMI Department of Labor: This is what we did to get better performance from the Department of Labor:

* Added dispute-avoidance and early dispute resolution provisions to cut down on the caseload of labor complaints

* Improved the inspection powers of the Department with respect to the places where foreign national workers work and live

* Provided clear criteria for the decisions that are made within the Department and flexible regulatory power to meet new circumstances in the future

* Reduced the Department's paperwork burden to accommodate the problem of reduced resources to operate the Department under current economic decisions

In the end, every legislative enactment involves a balancing of competing interests. This is especially the case with respect to a labor reform bill. I believe that, as the result of more than a year's work and the participation in our labor task force of many busy people, the balance we have achieved is an outstanding bill that will be a credit to the Commonwealth. No one got everything they wanted, but no one was slighted or left out, and the bill provides a net benefit for everyone affected by it.

Since that first slide presentation, I invited each and every one of you to attend the final presentation last Monday, June 11, to discuss the final proposed version of the bill. I feel that the JGO Committee has made every effort to educate everyone on this important bill. I strongly believe that this is a very, very good bill, and I hope we can all act on it quickly.

Thank you, Si Yu'us Ma'ase yan Olomwaay.

/s/ Jacinta M. Kaipat

Representative Jacinta M. Kaipat
Judiciary and Governmental Operations
15th Commonwealth Legislature

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