I wrote the following response to this post by Jeff Turbitt.
The December 12, 2007 edition of the Marianas Variety MISATTRIBUTED the following quote to me:
"THE principal sponsor of the bill that is now Commonwealth Employment Act of 2007 says foreign workers who can't stand the local labor system can leave."
For the record, I NEVER made the above statement that was MISATTRIBUTED to me. Since I didn't have a tape recorder the day that I had this impromptu interview with Gemma -- though she did -- I'm going to relate to you what was said to the best of my recollection. And, by the way, if you want to verify any of this, why not ask Gemma for the taped interview? If she can't or won't give it to you, there were several other witnesses to this interview: Rep. Joseph Guerrero, Rep. Ramon Tebuteb, Toni Apatang from PTI, Nace from the Governor's Office, and other Legislative staff. These people were only a few feet from us and observed the whole heated discussion that went on.
Rep. Ray Tebuteb, who went to sit by Joe Rep. Guerrero, invited me over to speak with him right after we recessed from one of our sessions. As I walked up to him, I heard Rep. Guerrero telling Gemma that he wanted to wait and see how PL 15-108 works out before making any amendments to the Law. I'd heard and read several reports that Tina Sablan is talking to other lawmakers about repealing PL 15-108 once they get in, so I inferred that Gemma was asking Rep. Guerrero this very question when I joined Rep. Tebuteb. Her next response was "What about the six-month periodic exit?" I heard Rep. Guerrero say, "That's why we put in the 10%..." and as he was saying this, he looked over and motioned for me to jump into the conversation. I picked up where he left off. "Ten percent key employee exemption." "That's all?!" was Gemma's retort as she turned and headed towards me and Rep. Tebuteb to put the tape recorder down in front of us. "And you're going to send everyone home?!" She posed this question and successive questions to me in a challenging, confrontational way, rather than the normal tone she used to use to pose questions to me BEFORE I introduced HB 15-38, which has now become PL 15-108. I kept holding my hand up to indicate to her that I wanted her to stop interrupting me and to allow me to speak and finish what I was saying before she continued with her questions.
I said, "Gemma, you know that the 10% key employee provision is there because we don't want to jeaopardize the businesses. It was intended to make sure that the key employees of a business remained on the job to run the business with other employees while the employer staggers the periodic exit for the rest of the employees!" Her follow-up retort was: "With what skilled employees are you going to replace them with?!" I said to her, "Come on, Gemma! You mean to say that we're ALL unskilled and uneducated? And are you saying that we'll be unskilled and uneducated forever? How many educated and skilled locals have left these islands because they couldn't get jobs here?! ," I exclaimed.
"Have you seen the Public Auditor's Jobs Study Report?", I continued. This Report came out in May 2007. She claimed she saw the Report. I began discussing the Report when my staff handed me a copy of the actual Report. I read an excerpt from page 6 which talked about a one-year study that the OPA Jobs Study Group conducted. The one-year study that ended in August 2006 found that the Department of Labor renewed 800 job applications for "nonresident workers" who are making $10 an hour on up to $20+ an hour . Her retort was "Well, that's a small number. That's what... only 10% of the population!" I was stunned by her reply. I said to her, "Gemma, this may ONLY be 10% of the much larger Filipino population, but for the much smaller local population, that's A LOT of jobs!" I continued: "We have 400 government employees who will be losing their jobs at the end of December. I'm sure there's a lot of them who are skilled and educated!"
Gemma then said "The nonresidents came here and built the economy...." I said to her, "Let's go back and examine that statement. The foreign national workers were brought here to build our economy? Did you come to the CNMI to 'build our economy' or did you come to the CNMI because you needed jobs and we needed workers, so we opened up the opportunity to you? Now, I know some employers did not pay their workers, and that's unfortunate, but for most of the workers, did they not get paid for their work?"
I continued, "Ever since the enactment of the Nonresident Workers Act in 1983, the law established that we were to only bring in the workers to supplement our Labor workforce where needed -- not to replace our local workforce. We have that right to decide how many workers to bring in." Gemma continued to insist that the number of foreign workers displacing local workers from jobs is merely a small number. I vehemently disagreed with her and, at this point, Rep. Joe Guerrero jumped back into the conversation and said, "The number's not the important thing here. The important thing is that IT has already happened."
I then said to Gemma, "Do you think that we could go to the Philippines and do the same things that you all are doing over here?" She said "No; you can't compare the two places because they're different!" I said, "Why?" Her response was "Because they have a bigger workforce! It's a different situation there."
"You know, Gemma," I said, "there are many components to PL 15-108 than just the "Exit" provision or the removal of the consensual transfer. Why is it that you (Gemma and the Variety) only print negative things about the Law and none of the good things I put into this Law??" Gemma said, "I'm just an employee. I'm just telling you what they're saying." Rep. Tebuteb said "And she has an editor who also edits the stories." Gemma nodded her head in agreement. I continued, "Why don't you report the good things I put in the Law, such as the mandatory orientation which even the United States law doesn't have? This helps foreign national workers know what their rights are upon arrival in the CNMI. There's also the mandatory insurance provision which protects workers from a bad employer who may force the worker to pay his or her own medical expenses and possibly forcing the worker to forego seeking medical attention? We all know that the CHC is broke. It has had all these problems with employers who don't pay their bills." I said, "I tried to educate the public on this bill, but you guys (the Variety) have been boycotting me for months! Her response was, "Well, I'm interviewing you now!" I said, "I've sent you guys at the Variety educational materials to publish about this Law, but you've REFUSED to print them! In fact, rather than print what I send you, you go out instead to find someone to interview who just happens to be hostile to the bill who hasn't bothered to read the bill. Your reporting is not balanced. All we ask is that you be balanced in your reporting!"
In the heat of this "debate," Gemma started complaining about the $3.05 minium wage that was the prevailing rate in the CNMI for years. She said, "There's a lot of anger about the minimum wage being so low. What could you buy for $3.05 an hour?!" At this point, I was indignant. "Come on, Gemma! If it's so bad here, then why is it that we have such a hard time getting anyone to leave?" [Jeff and anyone else who reads this: Notice that this statement is different from the quote above that was attributed to me.]
I said to Gemma, "It's not just the foreign national workers that were paid the $3.05 an hour minimum wage. The locals were paid the same amount. What I didn't point out at that time was that despite being paid the same minimum wage amount, the locals were a lot worse off because the employers did not provide them with the same 100% medical coverage that they are mandated by law to provide their foreign national employees. Other benefits factored in for the foreign national workers, such as food, transportation, and housing. As a matter of fact, when Rosemary Cowan, a high official of U.S. Labor visited the CNMI last year. her take on this was that it was reverse discrimination!
In this interview with Gemma, she threw in a side question which was: "Do you think the Labor Law cost you the elections?" I replied that I'd be a fool to think it had no effect. Of course, it did! But if my losing the elections resulted in waking up the government officials to do something about the fact that many locals are now unemployed or will be unemployed and we have more foreign national workers in the CNMI than we have jobs, then I didn't mind losing.
At this point, Toni Apatang of PTI stood up to leave and said to Gemma, "I hope you put in the article everything she said!" as she gestured towards me. Gemma said, "I can't put everything in," and Toni said, "Then put in the important things." Representative Tebuted remarked again about the editor's role.
As the interview winded down, Gemma sat down and we were able to have a quieter conversation. I was stunned to hear her admit, though with the tape recorder off, but with Rep. Tebuteb still sitting with us that (1) The abuses in the Philippines are a lot worse than those that have been reported here in the CNMI; (2) that in the PI, the employers employ workers for six months and then, after that, they just let them go and hire replacements easily from the large pool of surplus workers.
The next morning, all the Variety reported was the side question Gemma asked me about whether I thought the Labor Law cost me the elections. It wasn't until the December 12 article came out that had some substance of the interview in it. Unfortunately, and perhaps not surprisingly, of course, Gemma's lead-in sentence LITERALLY put words in my mouth! There was also no attempt to use the OPA Jobs Study Report, a copy of which I gave her, to provide support for the information provided in the interview that there are a number of jobs that are being held by foreign national workers who aren't being paid the typical $3.55/hr that critics of PL 15-108 always cite.
As to your observation that I should have involved the Chamber ealier, I don't know how much earlier I could have involved them when they were part of the Task Force from DAY 1! The Task Force first met in April of 2006. Alex Sablan represented the Chamber and he received every meeting notice and updated version of the bill as drafted by the Task Force members. He is also a signatory on the OPA Jobs Study Report which came out in May 2007 indicating that there is a large number of jobs paying a minimum of $10/hr that are currently being occupied by foreign national workers! I assure you that the Chamber was HEAVILY involved. In fact, they asked for a private consultation before we conducted a public hearing so they would not have to give their comments publicly. Task Force members met with the Chamber prior to the public hearing at the Legislature. One of the compromises reached with the Chamber to address their concern about the exit provision was the 10% key employee provision which was incorporated into the version that the JGO Committee reported out of Committee. Hence, despite their request for an earlier PRIVATE meeting, the Chamber and HANMI presidents still appeared at the public hearing and testified anyway. Lynn Knight even urged the Committee not to report out the bill until after the OPA Jobs Study Report had been published. The Committee heeded this request and waited. It adopted the OPA Jobs Study Report findings within one week after the Report's publication.
The Task Force continued to meet with the Chamber again after the public hearing. The Committee remained opened to suggestions -- reasonable suggestions that is. Some suggestions were adopted; others were not. Even after the House passed HB 15-38, several members of the Chamber, including Harry Blalock, trotted up to the Senate to see Senator Pangelinan and Senator Reyes. I understand that some of the Chamber members were somewhat embarassed when she pointed out that having taken the time to read the bill section by section, Senator Pangelinan found that the House Committee had, in fact, accommodated the Chamber quite a bit! That was part of the problem -- some of the members never bothered to read the bill and relied on a small group of people to give their opinion about the bill. Yet, they were some of the most vocal critics of the bill. I understand that the former Chamber president even admitted to one of the Task Force members that he never read the bill because it was too thick, yet he remained a very vocal critic of the bill. So, to correct your assumption, Jeff -- one of the things I've got to make clear is that I may have been the principal author of HB 15-38, which is now PL 15-108, but there were MANY, MANY fingerprints on this bill, INCLUDING those of the Chamber folks!
Another thing that want to say to those who say we don't need a new Labor law; we just need to enforce the old ones. They forget that the Labor Law that was on the books prior to the enactment of PL 15-108 had been piece-mealed together and was easily circumvented. My challenge as we drafted HB 15-38 was to gather all the bills that that the House and Senate members introduced during the 15th Legislature and CONVINCE THEM to allow me to incorporate them into HB 15-38 and into the Labor Regulations where appropriate. Believe me -- this was no easy feat, let me tell you! Anyhow, the notion that we should just go out and enforce the old law was impractical in that years ago, Judge Munson struck down several of the enforcement statutes. Those statutes remained worthless until PL 15-108 rehabilitated them. Besides, it is very important to bear in mind that PL 15-108 has MANY components to it -- not just the parts that critics of PL 15-108 write about and complain about on tv.
As to my friend Zaldy Dandan's accusations that PL 15-108 is really about removing all the foreign national workers from the CNMI and returning to a much simpler time, this is Zaldy's interpretation of this Law, not mine. PL 15-108 is not a deportation act, which bars you from returning to the CNMI forever. We recognize that we will always need foreign national workers to help us and that's fine as long as they are not displacing our local workforce from jobs, which is the unfortunate current situation right now. And I don't mean the $3.55/hr jobs only either! Contrast that to the U.S. House Bill which recently passed which states that the number of foreign national workers will be reduced to ZERO within five years (2013) unless the transition period is extended for another 5 years. In addition to this, a whole host of benefits for the workers were also given up. Now, which part of this House Bill are the Unity March leaders and marchers celebrating?