Congressman Faleomavaega announced today that he is publicly thanking Chairman John Fleming of the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs for agreeing to his request to hold a hearing on the GAO’s report entitled ‘Employment, Earnings, and Status of Key Industries Since Minimum Wage Increases Began in American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.’ Faleomavaega made the request of Chairman Fleming in a letter dated June 27, 2011 and the complete text of the letter is posted online at www.house.gov/faleomavaega.
“As a result of my request, the Subcommittee has informed my office that the hearing is tentatively scheduled for Friday, September 23, 2011 at 9:00 a.m. in the Longworth House Office Building, room to be determined,” Faleomavaega said. “Because the number of witnesses will be limited, I have asked that Governor Togiola be invited to testify and that President Gaoteote and Speaker Savali be permitted to submit written testimony for the record, and the Subcommittee has agreed to these requests.”
“In letters dated September 6, 2011, I have informed Governor Togiola, President Gaoteote and Speaker Savali of these developments and I also copied the Senators and Representatives. The Subcommittee will be sending out an official letter of invite to Governor Togiola in accordance with House procedures and my office has already forwarded instructions to the President and Speaker for submitting written testimony.”
“The GAO and the U.S. Department of the Interior also will be invited to testify. My office has also been in very close contact with the House Committee on Education and the Workforce which has jurisdiction for making any legislative changes to the current law. Chairman Kline was very helpful when we successfully placed a hold on further increases last year until such time as the GAO could undertake further study, and I appreciate the help his staff has provided my office this year.”
“I also appreciate the help and support of Chairman Doc Hastings of the Resources Committee who made it possible for our minimum wage legislation to proceed to the House Floor last year. As I explained then and now, I supported a one-time increase of $0.50 per hour for American Samoa’s workers but opposed automatic escalator clauses that did not take into account American Samoa’s fragile, island economy which has hinged for more than 50-years on a single-industry, namely the presence of two major tuna canneries – StarKist and Chicken of the Sea – that employed more than 74% of our private-sector workforce.”
“In 2009, one day after American Samoa was hit by a powerful earthquake that set off a massive tsunami from which the Territory has not fully recovered, Chicken of the Sea closed its operations in American Samoa and outsourced some 2,000 jobs to its parent company in Thailand where fish cleaners are paid less than $0.75 per hour. In order to take advantage of U.S. duty-free laws, Chicken of the Sea then hired a skeletal crew of about 200 workers in Lyons, Georgia to can the pre-cleaned fish from Thailand.”
“This new model of exploiting cheap labor in foreign countries has impacted StarKist’s ability to stay competitive given that StarKist is the only major brand of canned tuna that continues to cook and clean fish in the U.S. In fact, in the GAO’s 2010 report, it was determined that canneries like Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea which outsource fish cleaning jobs to our foreign competitors compete at about a $7.5 million per year advantage over StarKist which cooks and cleans its fish in American Samoa.”
“As a result of StarKist’s disadvantage in the U.S. marketplace, the company has been forced to lay off workers in American Samoa. Coupled with Chicken of the Sea’s closure, American Samoa’s economy has not been able to absorb the rapid minimum wage increases mandated by federal law. Also, due to American Samoa’s remote location, limited land, and infrequent air and shipping services, it has been difficult to diversify American Samoa’s economy but I have pledged to do what I can to halt further minimum wage increases in order to provide the American Samoa Government (ASG) with the time it needs to put an action plan in place, although I do not believe minimum wage is the sole cause of ASG’s problems.”
“In fact, the GAO openly admits that “it is difficult to distinguish between the effects of minimum wage increases and the effects of other factors, including the global recession beginning in 2009, fluctuations in energy prices, [and] global trade liberalization.” The GAO also points out local factors that have worsened ASG’s position.”
“Also of note, Tri-Marine, one of the world’s largest tuna supply companies, purchased the Chicken of the Sea facility and intends to open up a fully operational cannery in American Samoa, despite three minimum wage increases thus far. However, like StarKist, Tri-Marine will not be able to absorb further increases in the face of local and global challenges.”
“Having said this, the GAO also found that in American Samoa the ‘average earnings of workers who maintained employment rose from 2006 to 2009, but available data show that the increase was not sufficient to overcome the increases in prices.’ In other words, our workers aren’t earning enough to live, and I am deeply concerned by this outcome and also by the reiteration that ‘American Samoa had lower income and higher poverty rates than the mainland US.”
“Considering these factors and other complexities, I have asked my colleagues to work with us to address these challenges and I thank Chairman Fleming for beginning this process by holding a hearing on the GAO’s recently released report. I look forward to working with him, Chairman Hastings, Chairman Kline and our Democratic Ranking Members as well as our local leaders in making sure we do all we can for our tuna cannery workers and the people of American Samoa,” Faleomavaega concluded.