Saipan visa program under threat

An effort to save a program that allows the Northern Mariana Islands to import labor is likely to fail due to recent cases of abuse and visa fraud, the AP reports.

The visa classification, known as CW-1, allows employers to seek permission to hire foreign workers and is aimed at alleviating a labor shortage among the Pacific islands’ population of roughly 52,000.

The program was launched about a decade ago, but will be scaled back significantly from next year. Only 4,999 visas have been allotted, about half of those available the prior year. Local officials have been petitioning Washington for a reprieve, as the islands are heavily reliant on foreign labor.

“Seen from the distance of Washington, D.C., this looks like a program that doesn’t deserve to be continued — it’s not being properly monitored for abuse,” Bruce Mailman, an attorney at Mailman & Kara in Saipan was cited as saying. Still, “it’s a critical program for this place.”

Imperial Pacific International, the operator of the island’s only casino, has been struggling to finish the project due in part to labor issues. One of its main contractors was forced to leave the island after illegally importing Mainland Chinese workers on tourist visas.

The company has said it will seek an extension to an August 31 deadline for completion of the next portion of its hotel facilities under a timetable agreed with the Commonwealth Casino Commission.

The U.S. government has ordered four China-based construction contractors behind Imperial Pacific’s new casino resort on Garapan to pay a collective $13.9 million in back wages and damages to employees who came from China to work on the casino’s construction site.

The U.S. Department of Labor said its investigators with the department’s Wage and Hour Division determined that the foreign-based construction contractors paid their workforce less than the minimum wage and overtime pay required by the Fair Labor Standards Act or FLSA.

The China-based construction companies, including MCC International Saipan Ltd. Co., Beilida New Materials System Engineering Co. Ltd., Gold Mantis Construction Decoration, and Sino Great Wall International Engineering Co. LLC have been asked to pay $13,972,425 in back wages and liquidated damages to more than 2,400 employees.