State briefs for March 7

Mayor wants to turn abuse center into homeless shelter

HONOLULU — Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell wants to convert a facility for abuse victims into a homeless shelter.

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The $5.5 million women’s shelter has barely been used since it opened, Hawaii News Now reported Monday. In all of 2017, only 13 people sought help there, leaving most of the rooms empty.

Caldwell said converting the 20-room Makiki facility, which costs about $400,000 a year to operate, wouldn’t require much work or approval.

“We have an asset,” he said. “The Family Justice Center is just not being filled as we hoped it would have been and so that is the perfect place to house some of our homeless folks who really need it.”

City prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro opened the center in November 2016, describing it as a one-stop shop for victims and a place where they can get services and a secure place to live.

Advocates say the reason it hasn’t been used much is because its tenants must follow strict rules that are impractical.

In order to stay at shelter, victims have to be willing to testify against their abusers. They also aren’t allowed to leave without an escort and the center is only open to single women.

“The city could make an enormous difference by modifying the design of the program so that it’s not so much like a prison,” said Nanci Kreidman of the Domestic Violence Action Center.

Kreidman said her organization has referred victims there, but many refused to stay.

Currently, there are three people staying at the site, according to the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office.

The shelter’s requirements contributed to Kaneshiro changing the name of the facility in 2017 to the Prosecutor’s Safe House. The converted apartment building is also a focal point for the federal government, which is investigating Kaneshiro’s office over the project.

Multiple witnesses connected to the center have been summoned to testify before a federal grand jury about questionable practices with the purchase and renovation of the building.

Lienholder on ex-Honolulu police chief’s home wants it sold

HONOLULU — An attorney who once represented former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife Katherine against corruption allegations wants the couple’s home sold so he can recoup money they owe him.

Kevin Sumida has a lien on the Kealohas’ home, which a credit union has moved to foreclose on because the couple isn’t paying their mortgage. Sumida filed a motion Friday asking a judge to allow the house to be sold and give the court control over proceeds from the sale.

Sumida says if the home is sold at a distressed price in a foreclosure, there won’t be money for the government — or Sumida— to claim.

A judge has appointed taxpayer-funded attorneys to represent the Kealohas because he determined they had little money left after mortgage payments.

Chinese firms will pay $14 million back wages in Saipan case

HONOLULU — Four Chinese construction firms will pay nearly $14 million in back wages and damages to thousands of Chinese workers for construction of a casino in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Investigators found the contractors paid employees less than what was required by law, according to a U.S. Department of Labor statement released Monday.

The settlement will affect more than 2,400 employees. The four firms were contracted by Hong Kong-based Imperial Pacific International for construction on Saipan.

U.S. officials have said workers entered on tourist visas and without proper visa authorization by using a visa waiver program that allows Chinese citizens to travel to the Northern Mariana Islands. They were also forced to incur debt of thousands of dollars for airfare and recruitment fees prior to their employment in Saipan, according to the settlement.

“These settlements ensure that thousands of workers will receive the wages they legally earned, while simultaneously sending a strong, clear message to other employers,” said Bryan Jarrett, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Acting Administrator, in a statement.

The Chinese laborers worked 13 hours a day without weekends or holidays, and had their passports confiscated upon arrival in Saipan, said Li Qiang, the executive director of New York-based China Labor Watch, an advocacy group. Li communicated with the affected workers and liaised with U.S. officials to seek retribution for owed wages.

“More Chinese companies are expanding abroad, and in regions like the U.S. and Europe, hiring labor there can be expensive,” Li said. “Firms will prefer bringing Chinese workers.”

But oftentimes, the workers are lured with false promises such as high wages and even help in obtaining a green card — none of which materializes once they arrive. Higher fines and penalties levied by U.S. authorities will help combat these practices, Li said.

A handful of the workers remain in Saipan, though many have returned to China. Some have been waiting a year to be paid what they’re owed.

“Nobody has told us how much money we will each receive, nobody has said when we will actually receive the money,” Gong Benji, one of the Chinese workers in Saipan, said in a statement. “How can we return home and face the people who loaned us money to come here? We cannot simply tell the loan sharks that there is a press release.”

More needs to be done to guard against such exploitation, said Aaron Halegua, a lawyer and research fellow at New York University who has followed the Saipan case. For example, the Department of Labor could insist that Imperial Pacific subject future contractors to third-party monitoring over their labor practices, he said. “Some of the Chinese workers had legal work visas but were still badly abused.”

Imperial Pacific said in a statement released Tuesday in Hong Kong that it’s pleased a settlement was reached.

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Monday’s settlements are part of a wider investigation into the company’s casino and hotel project on the island.

Saipan island in the western Pacific is the seat of government of the Northern Mariana Islands.