Congressman Faleomavaega announced today that he is responding to Afoa Moega Lutu’s statement regarding minimum wage and ASG’s petition to President Obama, as reported by KHJ News on July 15, 2009.
“While I have no intentions of trying to influence our people one way or the other about whether or not they should sign a petition to President Obama to repeal federal minimum wage law, I do think it is important to provide our people with correct information so that they can base their decision on what they believe is best,” Faleomavaega said. “Below are my responses to Afoa’s comments as reported by KHJ News.”
The territory must stand together on the minimum wage petition or Washington will not pay attention to our economic plight.
“As I stated in a press release of June 10, 2009, Congress is paying attention. Chairman Kennedy, Chairman Miller and Chairman Inouye have clearly stated that Congress will work to delay the next minimum wage increase until after the GAO releases its findings about American Samoa’s economy. Until we have the GAO report, Congress cannot act any further than this because we have no clear indication about what the cost of living in American Samoa is in relation to minimum wage.”
“Common sense tells us that it costs more to live in American Samoa than it did ten years ago. And, yet, for the past ten years, our workers haven’t received wage increases in proportion to cost of living increases. In fact, when Special Industry Committees were put in place some 50 years ago, the purpose of Special Industry Committees was to bring American Samoa up to the federal minimum wage standard in a reasonable amount of time so that our workers would be paid sufficient enough to live. Fifty-three years later, we’re still not there, and American Samoa and CNMI remain the only U.S. jurisdictions where workers are paid below the standards set for every other American.”
Our local government and businesses must have a say in setting wage rates that our economy can afford and he advocates a return to Special Industry committees established by the Secretary of Labor to review local wages.
“For the past 53 years, before every single Special Industry Committee, ASG and our local businesses have had a say in setting wage rates for our economy, and that is exactly what has led to the problem we are now facing. After 53-years, our minimum wage rates are well below the national average and well below the poverty guidelines for a family of four.
As MSNBC.com reported on July 20, 2009, ‘21 States already require workers to pay wages at or above the new federal rate, [because] a lot of States moved a long time before the federal government moved on minimum wage.’ In fact, ‘according to seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ‘the average hourly wage for U.S. workers is $18.52 an hour.’
“Unfortunately, while other States moved ahead, American Samoa chose not to move at all, always buying into the false notion put forward by the canneries that Samoans don’t deserve equal pay for equal work because of the unique considerations of our economy.”
“True, American Samoa is unique and should be given special consideration when it comes to our economy. But even when the tuna industry was doing well and the global economy was healthy, Special Industry Committees denied our workers any significant increase in their wages. In the past ten years, our workers were given nothing, except one increase of 3 cents per hour, which was and is an insult to every Samoan. Congress finally said enough is enough -- no more Special Industry Committees.”
“However, given our remote location and the difficulty ASG has had in diversifying our economy, I did call upon Congress to take a look at revising Special Industry Committees, and this is a matter of public record. But, in so doing, I made it understood that I will not support the old Committees we once knew. I will only support a Committee that is fair, just and committed to balancing the interests of employers and employees, and that establishes one minimum wage rate for the territory, not the 18 rates we have now based on different industries.”
“American Samoa is the only State or territory in all of America that has 18 different minimum wage rates based on 16 different industries. This can no longer be. Like every other State or territory, we need to establish one, and only one, minimum wage rate for American Samoa. Whatever the minimum wage rate should be, it should be the same for every industry doing business in the territory.”
The petition to be presented to the President is only a request and it’s an
effort to bring Washington’s attention to the problems now affecting the territory because of the automatic pay hikes without looking at affordability.
“Washington is and has been paying attention to us,” Faleomavaega said. “For the public’s information, Congress raised the minimum wage rate all across America, not just in American Samoa and CNMI. However, as I stated previously, most States were way ahead of the federal government on this issue and had already established minimum wage rates higher than what the federal government is asking. But because Washington is aware of us, Congress took into account our unique situations and gave our employers twice as much time to come into compliance.”
“For example, when Congress required employers in the States to pay workers $1.00 per hour every year until they reach $7.25 per hour, employers in American Samoa and CNMI are only required to pay 0.50 cents per hour every year until they reach $7.25 per hour.”
“As a matter of record, I supported a one-time increase of 0.50 cents per hour for our workers making less than $5.25 per hour, and while I appreciate that Congress has given American Samoa’s employers extra time for the remaining increases, I am on record as opposing automatic increases until we can make an informed decision based on the GAO’s findings.”
“Regarding Afoa’s comments about affordability, the people of our territory understand that it is a double standard for ASG to publicly announce that it can afford to increase directors’ salaries by $10,000 per year but, on the other hand, cannot afford to increase wages for the poor. Contrary to Afoa’s assertions, the minimum wage issue isn’t about affordability. It is about doing what is right.”
“In my opinion, if ASG chooses to bring over workers from Samoa or elsewhere, then ASG must deal with the consequences of making sure those workers receive the wages they are due under the laws of the United States. After all, American Samoa is part of America, and it is un-American to use our territory as a haven for low-wage labor. Every worker in our territory deserves equal pay for equal work, and this means our Samoan cannery workers deserve to be paid what COS/Samoa Packing will be paying its workers in Lyons, Georgia. This is the American way – fair pay for honest work for everyone, including hourly workers in the government and private sector.”
“As a final point on this subject, to my knowledge, the Korean and Chinese communities, which I believe own about 80% of the retail businesses in American Samoa, have not made one complaint about affording the federally mandated increase in minimum wage.”
Those who are opposing the petition [should] look at the long term.
“I support anyone’s right to petition,” Faleomavaega said, “though I believe petitions are short-sighted approaches to complex problems. Real solutions require hard work and thoughtful consideration, and this is why my colleagues and I have spared no effort in making sure Congress delays the next minimum wage increase until the GAO completes its study. Based on the GAO findings, Congress will go from there and seek further delays, if necessary.”
“In 2007, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) under the Bush Administration to conduct a study and issue a report that would be helpful to American Samoa. Regrettably, the DOL issued a report that fell short of meeting the basic expectations of Congress.”
“In a letter dated March 14, 2008 to Secretary Chao, Senate Chairman Kennedy and Chairman Miller expressed their disappointment about the DOL’s January 2008 study on ‘The Impact of Increased Minimum Wages on the Economies of American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.’”
‘The Department’s report was poorly researched and in, many aspects, fundamentally flawed. It ignored at least half of the Congress’s clear instructions….
The report makes no attempt to evaluate the impact of the July 2007 50-cent wage increase or future increases on the living standards of working families in American Samoa and the CNMI….
The report is decidedly one-sided. The Department interviewed a limited number of government officials, business representatives, and industry lobbyists….
The authors of the report did not obtain the views of workers, their non-governmental advocates, or organizations such as social services or churches that interact with working families on a regular basis. This is an incredible oversight in a report on the impact of a labor policy on living standards and employment….
Moreover, it appears that the Department did not request the appropriate data on profitability from the major employers in either territory….
The Department failed to generate any new data on wage levels, cost of living, or employment conditions in American Samoa and the CNMI….
The Department failed to utilize the most up-to-date information within its own possession. The report used employment numbers from the Wage and Hour Division’s Economic Report 2007. Yet…more recent numbers were given to the Wage and Hour Division months before the report was issued, in an addendum from the American Samoa Department of Commerce. [The] report failed to use that addendum….
Because the report ignored the standards of living inquiry altogether, it failed to identify what data are available on the true cost of living in the territories and whether minimum wage increases would affect the ability of workers to meet those costs.
The report [also] failed to identify what data would be necessary to determine when and whether any particular business in either territory would reduce employment because of a minimum wage increase.”
“Given the DOL’s failure under the previous Administration to conduct a study that could be useful, Congress this time asked the GAO to conduct a new study. Pending the outcome of the new study, Chairman Miller, Chairman Kennedy and Senator Inouye have agreed to postpone the next increase by four months in order to give Congress time to consider the findings and, if necessary, act. At this time, we are waiting for the appropriate legislative vehicle to make this possible,” Faleomavaega said.
“As we await the information we need to make informed decisions based on knowledge rather than speculation, I do find MSNBC.com’s July 20 report on minimum wage to be insightful, and pertinent to what we are discussing in American Samoa. According to MSNBC, only ‘about 3 percent of hourly workers earn the current minimum wage or less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.’ And most of those workers are under 25, and their base pay is augmented by tips or commissions.”
“To underscore this point, in all of America, only 3 percent of hourly workers earn less than the current minimum wage. In other words, something is awfully wrong in American Samoa when hourly wages in the territory are still way, way below the national levels.”
The fishing industry cannot be easily replaced and…it still holds the most economic promise for the territory.
“On this point, Afoa and I agree,” Faleomavaega said. “This is why, rather than spending my time on petitions, I am working with StarKist to generate total economic development in American Samoa.”
“When all is said and done, what is happening with our economy and the tuna industry is bigger than federally mandated minimum wage increases. No matter if our wage rates are $3.00 or $7.00 per hour, our tuna canneries cannot compete against wage rates of 0.60 cents and less per hour which is what fish cleaners are being paid elsewhere.”
“As our people know, the world economy is collapsing and major corporations, which have been the backbone of the American economy, are failing. We are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, and we must find real solutions for American Samoa at the local and federal level.”
“This means we must do everything we can to keep StarKist in American Samoa and to attract new canneries to invest. Now more than ever, we must keep together and work whole-heartedly to implement ASPIRE, the American Samoa Protection of Industry, Resources, and Employment proposal. If turned into law, ASPIRE will provide federal incentives to canneries that do business in American Samoa and to U.S. tuna boats that directly deliver their fish to our territory. ASPIRE also includes a provision to pay our workers minimum wage rates as defined by federal law.”
“ASPIRE means more money for our workers and a better deal for our canneries and U.S. fishing fleet. ASPIRE is a win-win for everyone. But we must act immediately and in unity. If we are to be successful, ASG must be on board.”
“First and foremost, ASG will need to determine the legal status of its lease agreement with COS/Samoa Packing. With approximately four years remaining on the lease, and given that COS/Samoa Packing is pulling out before its time, at a minimum, ASG should do what it can to buy back the lease at a nominal cost, if possible, so that other tuna canneries more committed to American Samoa can establish operations in the territory, or expand existing operations.”
“At this point in time, two canneries are interested in the COS/Samoa Packing facility and I am hopeful that our Governor will take immediate action to protect American Samoa’s interests by making available the COS/Samoa Packing facility to other interested companies that may want to do business in our territory. Given that ASG negotiated the original lease with COS/Samoa Packing, only ASG is in a position to determine what can be done about making the facility available to other companies.”
“Finally, regarding misinformation being put forward by the media about foreign boats, the new boats added to the U.S. fishing fleet are U.S. majority-owned boats and every single one of them flies the U.S. flag. Even though these boats are U.S. boats, at no time have these boats fished in American Samoa’s waters, or any other U.S. EEZ. Any information being reported to the contrary is false and it is wrong for opponents to refer to these boats as foreign boats just because they were built in Taiwan. Again, these are U.S.-majority owned boats and they fly the U.S. flag.”
“While last year I supported legislation to allow these boats to fish in the U.S. EEZs for the sole purpose of supplying COS/Samoa Packing with the fish it needed to keep its cannery operational, the legislation was never enacted into law. Now that COS/Samoa Packing has announced it is leaving, I have not re-introduced the legislation, nor will I, because everything has changed since COS/Samoa Packing will no longer be in American Samoa to purchase fish, directly or indirectly, from these boats.”
“This is why I announced that I support the Governor’s call for a fee to be imposed on any and all tuna boats home-ported in American Samoa, if they do not pull into port and offload fish at our canneries,” Faleomavaega concluded.