Congress votes Tuesday on an annual defense bill that includes a provision allowing Guam to admit skilled foreign workers for both military and civilian construction projects, a move that could help ease a labor shortage in the U.S. territory.
The projects would include the construction of the U.S. Marine Corps facilities at the newly activated Camp Blaz, including several designed by Hawaii architecture firms as part of a military initiative partially funded by the Japanese government. It’s one of the largest military construction endeavors in the Pacific region.
Base planners have discussed the possibility of bringing in laborers from South Korea and the Philippines to supplement local construction workers. While companies in Hawaii and Guam are vying for construction contracts, Japanese officials have pushed for more opportunities for Japanese companies to make bids of their own.
A defense bill would allow foreign laborers to work on construction contracts in Guam.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The provision, which would allow Guam to admit workers on H-2B visas is part of the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act for 2021. H-2B visas allow foreign workers to take temporary jobs in the U.S. and its territories.
However, Congress is preparing for a potential showdown on the defense bill with President Donald Trump, who announced on Twitter that he planned to veto the bill because he wants a provision included to revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
That law shields tech companies from legal liability for the content posted by their users on online platforms. Several congressional Republicans, including Trump allies, have criticized the president’s insistence on using the defense bill to settle scores with tech companies.
Congress moved forward with the bill anyway.
“(Section) 230 has nothing to do with the military,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, told reporters last week. “I agree with his sentiments, we ought to do away with 230 — but you can’t do it in this bill.”
The Guam labor provision would have larger implications than just military contracting, allowing for foreign laborers to work on a wide range of construction projects. Guam officials have long been concerned about a shortage of skilled laborers like carpenters and welders and have argued that foreign workers could be a remedy.
“For years, we have seen our construction costs go up because of our construction labor shortages, making housing more expensive and stifling our real estate, construction and private sector industries,” congressman Michael San Nicolas, a Democrat from Guam, said in a press release.
Both Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands have been central in the U.S. military buildup in the Pacific that began under former President Barack Obama.
The construction of Camp Blaz is part of the Defense Policy Review Initiative, an agreement to relocate thousands of Marines from bases in Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii and Australia.
“For years, we have seen our construction costs go up because of our construction labor shortages.” Guam Congressman Michael San Nicolas
The Japanese government agreed to pay $3 billion on new facilities in Guam and the Marianas and Japanese officials have had input in the planning process. They were among those pushing for the military to use workers from Asia to fill gaps in the work force.
Opening up positions for foreign workers could allow Japanese companies to play a more active role in the base’s construction.
At least one Japanese company has been involved in the planning process for the base. Japan-based Gushiken Architectural Engineering Co. formed a joint venture with Architects Hawaii and Guam-based Setiadi Architects to take on a $31.9 million design contract.
As tensions have escalated at sea between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea and Taiwan, the Chinese military published a video in September that appeared to simulate an attack on Guam.
San Nicolas said Congress is “on track to pass the necessary language to finally remedy the construction labor shortages for the people of Guam, and bring to a close one of the most challenging federal issues affecting our development.”
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Kevin Knodell covers the military and veterans in Hawaii and the greater Pacific for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms.