GAO Report on Foreign Workers in CNMI Is a Total Whitewash

By David North on February 16, 2022

Supposing you were given several months and a staff of 12 (some part-time) to write a 44-page report on the history of America’s Black population.

Do you suppose that the product would avoid mentioning: 200 years of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, poll taxes, lynchings, discrimination in the workplace, and the murder of Martin Luther King? And if it did, do you suppose that a responsible organization would publish it?

The Government Accountability Office has pulled off a similar literary feat in its recent report on foreign workers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) in the western Pacific, just north of Guam.

You would never know from reading it that no other jurisdiction under the U.S. immigration law ever had such a huge portion of its workforce as nonimmigrant workers, that their presence on the islands has severely reduced wages and compromised working conditions for citizen and green-card workers, that CNMI, alone of the states and territories, has a particularly exploitative foreign worker program all its own, or that there is a substantial illegal alien population that makes matters worse.

Nor is it mentioned that without expensive federal subsidies, there would be virtually no economy. There is next to no manufacturing or serious agriculture in the islands, no mines or mills, and the last couple of years the tourist industry has had to get along with virtually no tourists because of Covid. Another set of islands, given this background, would simply ban foreign workers; Puerto Rico, for example, has virtually no foreign workers.

These are the GAO report’s Chamber of Commerce-type conclusions:

  • “The number of foreign workers fell 73 percent from 2001-2020.”
  • “U.S. workers were about half of the workforce in 2016 but 59 percent in 2020, in part due to a 2019 law that allowed foreign workers with employment visas to become long-term U.S. residents.”
  • “An annual study showed the number of workers earning less than $8 an hour declined 68 percent.”

The last point is telling. We should be encouraged by the fact that only some of the workers were being paid under $8 an hour!

As to the first point, of course, the number of foreign workers fell by 73 percent. In 2000 the garment factories were still operating at a high level, and the tourist business was booming. Neither statement can be repeated today. The garment factories closed when China was admitted to the World Trade Organization, which quickly led to the death of the (largely Chinese-owned) garment shops on the islands, thus un-employing literally thousands of Chinese nationals who had worked in them.

I am not saying that the three GAO conclusions are not factually correct, that’s not the problem. They are instead both sugar-coated and deprived of a national context, and are thus meaningless.

The report deals with the CNMI labor market as if it were not part of the American scene; there are no comparisons with other island labor markets, or with the U.S. labor market, yet the CNMI is part of the U.S. and the national immigration law applies (as it does not in American Samoa). Although a lot of statistics are shown, there is no discussion of how — uniquely under the U.S. flag, the islands’ labor market is dominated by foreign workers — virtually none of whom can move up to citizenship, and thus voter status. The treatment in the report of the issue of the minimum wage is typical of this narrow focus.

The Minimum Wage. The federal minimum wage, at $7.25 an hour, is so out of date thanks to congressional foot-dragging that it is rarely violated on the mainland. In CNMI, however, that wage level is part of the conversation, as the CNMI version of the minimum wage has moved up, by law, slowly over the years and recently reached the federal level.

The CNMI government routinely runs a wage survey and asks employers what they are paying. While there is a formidable non-response rate, the GAO reported that 8 percent of the employers said that they were paying $7.25 or less in 2020, and about 6 percent reported so in 2021. In contrast, a comparable federal report about the U.S. as a whole found in 2020 that only 1.5 percent of U.S. workers were at or below the minimum. So we have about five times as many workers in the islands at this rate, proportionately, as on the mainland. That is one of the facts that is not mentioned in the GAO report.

The minimum wage data for the CNMI can be seen in Appendix III of the previously cited report. The Bureau of Labor Statistics report on all 50 states can be seen here (Table 6).

Twenty-some years ago when I was in the Department of Interior's Office of Insular Affairs and visited CNMI three times on business, there were, as I recall, two full-time minimum wage investigators and one part-time one, assigned to these islands. The two-full time ones were there only because the Office of Insular Affairs paid the Department of Labor to support them. At least one of the investigators lived on Guam and took short flights every morning and every evening to and from Saipan, rather than reside there — an interesting judgment. How many minimum wage officers now work in CNMI? Do not look for that information in this report.

Given the total lack of background information in the report (supervised by Latesha Love, a senior GAO official) I began to wonder if the entire report had been written without a visit to the islands. I checked every footnote to see if there were any local references, such as to newspaper articles or interviews with residents, and I found none.

I then sent a one-line inquiry to GAO asking: “Did any of you set foot in the Marianas?” I got this answer from Love (quickly I might add):

We had a dedicated set of staff on this review, most of whom worked on this job full time. While the pandemic limited safe travel this past year, as it did for many, we were fortunate enough to have senior managers and staff involved in the job who have examined issues in CNMI for up to two decades — to include being on the ground in CNMI on numerous occasions.

I translate that from the gracious GAO-ese to mean “No, not for this report.”

Note: Labor exploitation is just one part of the grim scene in these islands where corruption is rampant. It is worth noting that the current governor, Ralph Torres, was impeached by the lower house of the legislature earlier this year, just nine years since the impeachment of Governor Benigno Fitial. While CNMI has had two impeachments in nine years, on the Mainland, with 50 governors, there have been only 15 impeachments in 225 years, or about one every 15 years. CNMI thus must have set a U.S.-wide record for impeachment frequency.