[This reporter reported this story accurately. Thank you, Haidee.]
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CNMI officials to Filipinos: Give new labor law a chance
By HAIDEE V. EUGENIO, GMANews.TV
01/30/2008 | 02:09 PM
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SUSUPE, Saipan – Key officials of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) government told about a hundred representatives of various Filipino groups on Saipan to give the new labor reform law a chance.
In a three-hour open forum on Tuesday night exclusively covered by GMANews.TV, the CNMI officials said Public Law 15-108 or the Commonwealth Employment Act of 2007 still allows foreign workers to transfer jobs through administrative orders and not necessarily through the filing of a labor complaint against their current employers.
The officials said the new law allows foreign workers to have part-time jobs of up to 32 hours a month, and provides more protection to guest workers than the current system.
The labor reform law takes effect on Feb. 1.
Thousands of Filipinos and other foreign workers joined a unity march in December 2007 to protest the new law, citing its anti-worker and anti-business provisions that restrict consensual and contract expiration transfers and require guest workers to periodically exit the CNMI from 60 days to six months.
But on Tuesday night, the CNMI officials led by Governor Benigno R. Fitial's special legal adviser Howard Willens and his wife and volunteer attorney Deanna C. Siemer, along with Labor Director Barry Hirshbein and former Rep. Cinta M. Kaipat who introduced the bill in the previous legislature that became Public Law 15-108, said workers may have only been misinformed about the advantages of the new law.
"Even the United States has a touchback provision which requires foreign workers to exit (for one year)," said Siemer, adding that the new CNMI labor law only requires a periodic exit of 60 days to six months.
The CNMI Department of Labor also grants exemptions from the periodic exit requirement.
"Public Law 15-108 is better than any law you can find in the world, including the United States…This is the best system there is," Siemer told the Filipino workers, adding that guest workers should "give the new law a chance."
Workers interviewed by GMANews.TV said what they heard during the open forum was the direct opposite of what they knew about the law.
Opponents and critics of the new labor law say the measure will further disenfranchise guest workers in the CNMI now numbering only 19,856 from 20,883 on Sept. 30, 2007 and from 35,000 just a few years back due to a declining economy.
"Tingnan natin kung sino ang nagsasabi ng totoo pagdating ng Feb. 1," one worker said after the open forum.
The CNMI officials also said that contrary to many guest workers' belief, the immigration federalization bill now pending in the U.S. Senate will phase out the guest worker program.
The federalization bill's provision granting non-immigrant status to thousands of eligible long-term foreign workers in the CNMI was removed before it cleared the U.S. House of Representatives, to the disappointment of over 8,000 long-staying Filipino workers in the CNMI and thousands more of foreign workers.
A non-immigrant status allows eligible foreign workers to freely travel, work and study in the United States and its territories.
Jerry Custodio, president of the Human Dignity Movement, said the open forum did not convince him that the new law is as good as the officials want Filipino workers to believe.
Last year, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial himself was quoted by local media as saying that the exit requirement under the new labor law is to prevent foreign workers from gaining permanent residency status should a bill offering such status is introduced in the US.
On Jan. 31, representatives of the Filipino community will meet with US Federal Labor Ombudsman Jim Benedetto in another open forum. Benedetto is one of the most vocal critics of the new labor law, saying it diminishes the right of foreign workers.
The workers said they are also eager to personally hear the concerns of the critics of the bill.
Towards the end of open forum at around 9 p.m. on Tuesday, another worker addressed a question to Philippine Consul General to the CNMI Wilfredo DL. Maximo. She asked permission to speak in Filipino to which the consul general agreed.
The worker asked why the Philippine Consulate General has never issued a statement to defend Filipino workers in the CNMI who were called "animals" and other derogatory terms by certain members of the local community.
Maximo said the Philippine government "does not intend to add more fuel to the fire," as he cited an anonymous called who called Filipinos "animals."
"Hindi tayo magpapadala sa ganyang mga incendiary comments… Kapag sumagot kami, parang sinabuyan naming ng gasolina (ang apoy). Hindi naming hahayaan na magkaroon ng racial tension dito," Maximo said.
He called on his fellow Filipinos to maintain friendly relations with all the members of the CNMI community. - Haidee V. Eugenio, GMANews.TV