The recent situation with businesses closing in the Northern Mariana Islands due to expiring visas of foreign employees is just a warning for more upheaval to come if employers don’t take matters into their own hands.
And that hasn’t been the only warning of workforce transitions that are forging ahead in the NMI. The minimum wage is steadily working its way up to U.S. standards as well. It’s risen from $5.05 per hour in 2010 to $5.55 in 2012 to its current rate of $6.05, which will increase by 50¢ again this September and twice more before reaching the federal minimum of $7.25.
Aside from federally mandated wage increases, market forces are also at play in regards to pay rates. With the entrance of Best Sunshine International to the market, businesses have been faced with competition for their employees offering better hourly pay.
Operating a business has plenty of uncertainties — from unforeseen expenses and project setbacks from typhoons to the unpredictable tides of the tourist markets. But two things are certain: the number of CNMI-Only Transitional Worker visas to be issued will continue to decline while the minimum wage will continue to increase.
When the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services lowered the 2016 cap for CW workers in October to 12,999, Congressman Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan said the action “reminds us that the number of CW workers will continue to decrease over the next four years and that everyone in the Marianas — business, government and the educational system — will have to work overtime to replace this foreign labor with U.S. workers or with foreign workers who have some status other than CW.”
Knowing this, the business community would do well to take charge of its own fate by foreseeing the changes and finding other ways to staff their companies rather than getting caught blind-sided with each incremental increase or decrease and with each delay in federal action outside of their control.
Some businesspeople are already taking steps to help themselves. Hee Kyun Cho, owner of JMSH LLC, for one, is making moves to boost traffic and tourism dollars to the NMI by launching a separate company, an inter-island tour service with private flights from Guam to Rota (See Front Page photo). Other companies including Joeten, Tan Holdings and leading hoteliers are taking similar proactive measures to ensure the stability and longevity of their business as best they can.
The five-year extension to transition from CW workers and the 240-day grace period to allow CW workers to continue working while awaiting their permit renewals only prolong a dependence on foreign workers. The less reliant the business community becomes on foreign labor, and subsequently, on the federal government for extensions and approvals regarding these workers, the sooner NMI can really start to strengthen its foothold on the economic ladder. mbj