Congressman Faleomavaega Eni announced today his response to John Newton’s Guest Editorial entitled: “Mommy, I Want to be a Fish Cleaner” published in Samoa News on Saturday, November 7, 2009.
“I am disappointed at how insulting and offensive Mr. Newton’s comments are regarding our fish cleaners,” Faleomavaega said. “I don’t know where Mr. Newton has been in the last 40 years, but it is sad that after all this time, he has not realized that our fish cleaners, mostly women, and totaling some 3,600 strong on average every year at the two canneries, have been a critical part of our work force within the U.S. tuna industry, and very important to the overall economy of our territory.”
“From the outset, the two canneries were the backbone of American Samoa’s economy and the main suppliers of the U.S. canned tuna market. In FY 1999, Star Kist Samoa and Chicken of the Sea/Samoa Packing exported a total of more than $446.5 million worth of canned tuna from American Samoa to the United States. Since 1956, Star Kist Samoa and Chicken of the Sea/Samoa Packing have exported well over $40 billion worth of canned tuna from American Samoa to the United States. All of this was from the hard labor of our fish cleaners that Mr. Newton so insensitively despised in his editorial. And for his information, fish cleaners were paid about 27-cents per hour when the canneries first operated in the territory in the 1950’s and some 50 years later only $4.76 per hour, having only recently made it up to this rate when the federal government increased minimum wage rates by $0.50 cents an hour in 2007 and every year thereafter.”
“Today, the economy of American Samoa is more than 80% dependent either directly or indirectly on the U.S. tuna fishing and processing industries. Our two canneries, Chicken of the Sea and Star Kist, employed more than 5,150 people or 74% of the entire private sector workforce. On the good years of operation, our canneries processed about 950 tons of tuna per day which is equivalent to 228,000 tons of tuna or 20.5 million cases per year,” Faleomavaega stated.
“Though the wages were meager, the hours long, and working conditions and benefits were often inadequate, cleaning fish was a sacrifice many Samoans made so their children and families could have a better future,” Faleomavaega continued. “I have seen it so many times, especially in the remote villages in the western and eastern districts in the villages of Amanave, Vatia, Tula, Aunu’u and Onenoa. Visit these villages at about two or three in the morning and see our Samoan women dressed in their white uniforms waiting to catch their one-hour long bus ride to and from the canneries. Then visit the canneries and again observe these same women cleaning fish and standing for some eight hours each working day. After twenty years of service these women are rewarded for their efforts with a measly pension of about $120.00 per month, compliments of Heinz/Star Kist and Thai Union/Samoa Packing/Chicken of the Sea.”
“Over the years, I have tried very hard to push for better wages for our fish cleaners, and other low paid workers, because their sacrifices should be rewarded and respected. This reminds me of what the late Congressman Phillip Burton said to me years ago: ‘Eni, don’t worry about those large corporations because they can afford to pay high priced teams of lawyers to protect their interests, but it is the little guy out there who is struggling to make a decent salary to support his family that you need to watch out for, and I trust that you will not forget that.’”
“Just because I am fighting for better wages for our fish cleaners, for Mr. Newton to now insinuate that cleaning fish is all that I am advocating is absolute nonsense and he should know better. Also, I want Mr. Newton to know that there is nothing degrading about cleaning fish, nothing demeaning about it. In fact, it has been a means for many of our workers to provide for their children, families, villages and churches. Many of our young people graduated from our high schools and continued to colleges and universities, mainly due to the sacrifices their parents made by working in the canneries, and among many of them were fish cleaners.”
“I know that Mr. Newton’s most recent venture to set up a Call Center failed drastically. But that’s no reason why Mr. Newton should adopt a condescending attitude and demean our fish cleaners, and to imply this is all Samoans are good for and nothing more,” Faleomavaega said.
“Don’t get me wrong. I want very much for our businesses to make reasonable profits, but at the same time, I believe it only fair that our workers also make decent wages commensurate with the cost of living,” Faleomavaega added. “And I have advocated for the diversification of our economy with the support of my colleagues in Congress who set aside $600,000 to establish the American Samoa Economic Development Commission which released its findings in 2002, five years before increases in minimum wage ever took place. But no action was taken at that time to establish a Call Center, or to diversify in any other way during that time.”
“We have a saying in Samoan: Togi muamua sau ma’a, meaning, contribute something first before criticizing the matter at hand. I suggest Mr. Newton should recognize the fact that any success he has had as a small businessman in American Samoa was to a great extent attributed to the hard work of our fish cleaners who provided a critical element to the successful operations of our canneries – which in turn has created a multiplier effect for greater economic development for our local businesses. This reminds me also of a Chinese proverb that perhaps Mr. Newton may want to consider, ‘When you drink water from the well, one should be grateful for those who dug the well,’” Faleomavaega concluded.