[Note: Apologies to my visitors -- and especially to Dave, Lex, Lewie, & Angelo who have been bugging me to update this blog . For those of you who are still with me, THANKS for your patience. :) My computer challenges are temporarily resolved and my beloved Auntie Bernie's funeral is now behind us.]
"Chairwoman Christensen, Congresswoman Bordallo, Speaker Babauta, President Mendiola, Distinguished Colleagues and Guests, Good Morning, Hafa Adai, and Tirow! Thank you for this opportunity to share a few thoughts with you.
First of all, many of my constituents question the decision to hold this most important hearing at the courthouse given the limited space there. I realize this might be a bit late now, but wouldn't it have been better to hold this historic hearing at the Multi-Purpose Center where it could accommodate more people?
Chairwoman Christensen, I want you and the Committee to know that the people of the CNMI are not bad people. For all the criticisms that we get, the vast majority of our people do not even own businesses; we don't all employ foreign workers; and contrary to what is consistently reported about the Commonwealth, most of us do not condone labor abuses either. That is not to say that abuses haven't happened here, but to make it seem as though nothing is being done to correct such mistakes is wrong.
On the contrary, so much of what has been reported about labor abuses in the Commonwealth are, in fact, old reports that continue to be regurgitated over and over again. Let me share a couple examples of what I mean by such biased reporting.
How many of you have heard of a documentary called "Behind the Labels:...." that came out a few years ago? The woman who made this so-called "documentary" contacted me while I was working as a hearing officer for the Department of Labor. I'd been told that she was with Oprah Winfrey's Oxygen Network. When I began asking questions about the purpose of her film, she immediately ceased all communication with me. Later on, I heard that the "documentary" was shown at Stanford University, and, as predicted, the film succeeded in reinforcing people's condemnation of the CNMI.
But peer behind the making of "Behind the Labels...." and this is what most fair and decent people would be shocked to learn. The producer/director of this so-called "documentary" hired a couple of my mainland American friends to help her film footage of this "documentary." My friends told me that they quit in disgust over this person's ethics which they came to question during the filming. One of the things they said bothered them about this woman was her blurring of the line between fact-gathering and coaching her interviewee(s). On one occasion, for example, my friends told me that they witnessed an interviewee being coaxed by the producer/director: "It would be better if you didn't smile"; "It would be better if you said it this way;" and "It would be better if you cried." My friends said that the final straw was when she asked them to break the law and break into a warehouse with her so they could snoop around and film it.
Another example is the article about forced abortions that appeared in Ms. Magazine. It was very obvious to us that this tired old story was already written before the author ever even set foot in the Commonwealth. It was crystal clear from reading the magazine article that the writer had an agenda when she arrived in the Commonwealth. Hence, the purpose of the trip was not necessarily to find the truth, but to find supporting evidence -- whether real or not -- to bolster the article's claims.
Madame Chair and Committee members, I worked as a Labor Hearing Officer for over five years and I mediated and presided over quite a number of labor cases. I've seen my fair share of cases up front to be able to say that there are good employers and good employees and bad employers and bad employees. That's nothing unique to the CNMI. However, as a hearing officer, it didn't matter to me whether it was a "local" or "foreigner" breaking the law. I'd like to think that I was firm, but fair.
Now, the original intent of the Nonresident Worker's Act, which I believe we've strayed so far from these days, was to bring in ONLY those guest workers that the Commonwealth needed to supplement the available workforce where needed PROVIDED THAT doing so does NOT impair the wages and living conditions of the Commonwealth's citizens. Madame Chair, I say to you, the wages and living conditions of the citizens of the Commonwealth have, in fact, been severely impaired for a number of years. This observation was shared last year by Ms. Rosemary Cowan of U.S. Labor.
For a long time, the minimum wage was kept low to satisfy our acquired addiction to cheap labor. The wages were kept so low that our returning residents who had gone off to school and returned with their degrees could not afford to take jobs at such low wages. Many of them found it impossible to stay, and many who stayed have now also left the Commonwealth.
I was one of those who left the Commonwealth in search of a higher education. I was gone almost 20 years and returned only after I obtained my law degree. Let me be clear about this. All of us appreciate the contributions that the guest workers have made to the CNMI. I, for one, love the diverse, multi-ethnic rainbow of friends that go out every weekend with me as members of Beautify CNMI to enhance our environment and quality of life. Most importantly, I am grateful for their contributions to building the CNMI economy and for the many services provided to the Commonwealth.
Nevertheless, as Senator Mendiola mentioned earlier, there is a huge concern in the CNMI community about the impact of grandfathering in thousands of workers and their immediate relatives without studying the short and long-term impact on our small island communities. I, too, share his concern about this issue. I say this because the Legislature continues to be bombarded with funding shortages for our public school systems and community college. We never have enough money to hire teachers for our ever-expanding student populations. The crowded classrooms get more and more crowded. Demands to build more classrooms are heard constantly and existing buildings are falling apart. And let us not forget the heavy demands put on our poor infrastructures which continue to plague us.
Add to all this the reality that CNMI citizens now have fewer job prospects in the private sector because of the state of the CNMI's economy and the impact of many businesses folding. This translates into fewer taxes paid and an ever-shrinking ability of this Government to afford to pay for basic essential needs and services.
Now, as to those long-term foreign workers who are vying for U.S. citizenship, if that's what they want, I say "go for it." But why do they feel compelled to stand on CNMI soil and paint such an ugly picture of our home and our people to get it? Is this the only way to get an improved status? The CNMI people who became naturalized U.S. citizens earned their citizenship by giving up something. We gave up two-thirds of Tinian. We also gave up more land on Saipan. And as we speak, the U.S. Military continues to bomb Farallon de Medinilah, one of our Northern Islands. I am from the Northern Islands, so I remain especially sensitive to this sacrifice.
When we consider how long the United States has been in existence and the mistakes that were made along the way, I don't think it's fair that the Commonwealth should be severely penalized for her mistakes. On the contrary, the Commonwealth must be helped to rectify such mistakes so that ALL of us could enjoy a quality of life we all richly deserve.
Thank you, Si Yu'us Ma'ase Yan Olomwaay."
After my speech, Chairwoman Christensen told me "Perhaps we will take a look at your Labor Bill." She was referring to H.B. 15-38, the Comprehensive Labor Reform Bill that I authored which has been the subject of so much community discussion. That bill passed the House and is now pending in the Senate.
Congressowman Bordallo shared that she got "choked up" when she listened to my speech.
One of the staff attorneys approached me afterwards and told me how much he appreciated what I had to say and that he could tell I "spoke from the heart."