10,000 foreign workers to go in the Marianas

US Labour Secretary has until July 4

“It will be a disaster,” said Juan T. Guerrero, general manager of the largest and oldest bakery in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, as he ponders on the fate of this U.S. territory if and when some 10,000 foreign workers that the local economy has relied upon are sent back to their country of origin on December 31, 2014. Many say such en masse exit would plunge the CNMI into an economic abyss that’s much worse than it has ever seen.

That’s because the existing U.S. citizen or local labour pool is simply not enough to help the economy grow, let alone survive between now and the end of 2014. “Even restaurant food that community members have come to love will never feature again if we lose our valuable foreign chefs and cooks,” said Guerrero, a former president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organisation in the CNMI. Still, there are some who want to send foreign workers packing, except for critically needed ones. If the transitional foreign worker programme is not extended, the CNMI would lose thousands of its relied-upon professionals and skilled workers – from registered nurses to teachers, accountants, architects, engineers, reporters, technicians, mechanics, masons, plumbers, house workers, care givers, cooks, farmers, fishermen and beauticians, to name a few. Guerrero said it is nearly impossible to train or educate anyone to become a nurse in less than a year, for example, or to become a certified teacher in just six months.

U.S. Labour Secretary Thomas Perez has until July 4 to decide whether to grant the CNMI’s request to extend the transitional immigration programme for five years or up to 2019. But the mixed signals from the U.S. Department of Labour since 2013 continue to cause uncertainty among CNMI employers asking whether they could still keep their businesses open without enough and qualified workers. Foreign workers in the CNMI are at a loss whether they would still have a job after 2014. Many existing businesses and prospective investors are holding off expansion or new investment plans without knowing whether they would have enough workers in just half a year from now.

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