The final version of the recently passed Defense spending bill for 2007 kept intact a provision that repeals a ban against foreign laborers working on military construction projects on Guam.

“That is one of the most important things that needed to be done,” said Sen. Antonio Unpingco, chairman of the Guam Legislature’s Committee on Tourism, Maritime, Military and Veterans Affairs. “The shortage of manpower is very obvious and in order for the military to really build up here we need to go out of our box here so that we can get the needed skilled workers.”

Officials have estimated that 20,000 skilled construction workers will be needed to build infrastructure to accommodate the arrival of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa by 2014. The relocation is planned to start in 2008.

The island currently has about 5,000 construction workers and the consensus has been that the only feasible source of the additional labor is Asia. Workers likely would come from the Philippines, South Korea, China and — though it has not traditionally been a source of alien workers in Guam — Japan, which is to fund most of the move under a U.S.-Japanese military realignment plan.

Guam Gov. Felix Camacho reiterated his support of repealing the foreign labor ban, provided that local workers are given first preference and that the alien labor program is not abused.

“He knows that the local work force needs to be built up,” said the governor’s spokesman, Shawn Gumataotao. “He will be looking very carefully at what’s needed to ensure that federal laws are followed.”

The repeal was inserted in the Defense bill on the request of Madeleine Bordallo, Guam’s congressional delegate.

Bordallo has scheduled a meeting on Oct. 20 with Guam Contractors Association and Guam Department of Labor representatives to review the issue, said Joy James of Bordallo’s Guam office.

While the association advocated for the repeal, its members have said they’re also mindful of abuses that took place in the program in the late 1990s. Abuses included people lacking necessary skills, being moved to other jobs without going through the required certification and local workers being displaced by foreign workers accepting lower wages.

“We want to make sure we do it right,” said Karen Storts, association president. “As long as it’s managed right and we keep in mind the problems we had in the past, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Robert Underwood, the former Guam congressional delegate who introduced the original ban on alien laborers for military construction more than a decade ago, acknowledged that the current labor force is insufficient for the expected work.

“Obviously, we’re facing a labor crunch,” said Underwood, who is opposing Camacho as the Democratic candidate for governor in the November elections.

But he reiterated his concern that the program not depress wages for local workers.

“Wages must be monitored very closely,” he said. “Even though the prevailing wage (provision) is the law, officials have to make sure it’s enforced or it will have a negative effect on local wages.”

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