April 14, 2017 / 5:31 AM / 3 years ago

Saipan casino workers protest for payment as FBI cites illegal labor

HONG KONG (Reuters) - More than 50 construction workers hired for a casino resort on the Pacific island of Saipan staged a street protest on Friday demanding to be paid, after their employer was charged with illegally importing Chinese workers on tourist visas.

FILE PHOTO: The first phase of a new casino resort is seen under construction at Saipan, a U.S. South Pacific island, November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Farah Master/File Photo

The Chinese workers, who entered Saipan on tourist visas and are not allowed to work, demanded that casino contractor MCC International Saipan, a unit of state-owned Metallurgical Corporation of China Ltd, pay them wages, said eye witnesses.

“MCC return my hard earned money,” read a protest banner, according to a Facebook live update. The Facebook videos could not be verified independently by Reuters.

MCC did not respond to a request for comment.

“No passports. No work. No money,” said local legislator Ed Propst, who observed the protests.

Hong Kong-listed Imperial Pacific operates the Best Sunshine Live casino in Saipan. MCC is one of the contractors engaged to complete construction of the casino resort.

“Imperial Pacific International is strongly reiterating that it does not condone the hiring and or employment of individuals by illegal means,” the company said in an email to Reuters.

“Imperial Pacific International is emphatic in its request to all of its contractors and subcontractors to follow all local and federal labor and immigration laws and regulations in the conduct of its business, including and in particular, the hiring of construction workers.”

MCC, together with Beilida Overseas (CNMI) Ltd, were charged by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on April 3 with illegally importing and employing Chinese workers, including one who died in March, court documents showed.

Saipan is part of the Northern Mariana Islands and has been controlled by the United States since the end of World War Two.

Its cash-strapped government approved a casino in 2014, after which Chinese investment has skyrocketed and Chinese signs and business have mushroomed across the island.

Since Imperial Pacific opened a temporary casino on the island under two years ago, its revenues have wildly outperformed the top casinos in Macau in spite of China’s battle to stop capital flight.

Scrutiny of the new Saipan casino project has intensified after the death of a construction worker in March and an FBI raid in April that found a list of more than 150 undocumented workers in a contractor’s offices, as well as a safe containing several thousand dollars in U.S. currency, several hundred Chinese yuan and employee pay stubs.

Imperial told Reuters in April that it had paid construction contractors “requisite fees for processing needed applications for workers to work on the construction problems”.

The company said it opened its new casino on March 31 but the attached resort remains unfinished with equipment strewn across the workplace. There has been a slew of more than 100 work-site injuries from fractures to crushings in the past year, volunteers helping the injured told Reuters.

Reporting by Farah Master, Additional reporting Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Michael Perry

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