Congressman Faleomavaega announced today that in a letter dated January 29, 2008 he informed Governor Togiola that he has introduced H.R. 5154, a bill which would amend the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007 and condition further increases in minimum wage applicable to American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) on a determination by the Secretary of Labor that such increases will not have an adverse impact on either economy. Faleomavaega introduced the bill in response to the Department of Labor’s (DOL) recent report which indicated that the first increase of fifty-cents per hour was not harmful to either economy although further increases could be. A complete text of the Congressman’s letter which was copied to Senator Inouye, the Secretary of the Interior, the Lieutenant Governor, and the Fono is included below.
Dear Governor Togiola:
I am enclosing a copy of the report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Bureau of Labor Statistics that provides an assessment of the impact federal minimum wage increases might have on both American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). As you know, I asked Chairman George Miller of the House Committee on Education and Labor to include a provision in the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act of 2007 requiring the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the impact federal minimum wage increases might have on both economies.
As a result of Public Law (P.L.) 110-28, minimum wage was increased in American Samoa and CNMI by fifty cents per hour on July 24 and July 25, 2007, respectively. P.L. 110-28 also mandated an automatic increase, or escalator clauses, of fifty cents per hour every year thereafter until 2014 for American Samoa, and 2015 for CNMI.
As a matter of record, I supported a one-time increase of fifty cents per hour for American Samoa’s cannery workers and lowest-paid government employees making less than $5.15 per hour. I also opposed escalator clauses or automatic increases noting that automatic increases could be harmful to American Samoa’s economy.
The DOL report concludes that neither Chicken of the Sea nor StarKist has reduced output or working hours in immediate response to the first fifty-cent increase in the minimum wage. Although both companies have stated they may do so in the future, I believe we can agree that our tuna cannery and lowest paid government workers deserved an immediate increase of fifty cents per hour after not getting an increase of any worth for the past ten years.
Regarding automatic increases, or escalator clauses, every year thereafter, the report also supports what I have said from the outset. Our economy cannot afford automatic increases in minimum wage. Automatic increases could lead to the closing of both canneries. Given that our economy has not been diversified, we cannot afford for our canneries to pack up and leave. This is why we have worked together to provide our canneries with the local and federal incentives they need to stay in American Samoa.
However, I am disappointed that, despite our best efforts to support our canneries, the DOL reports that when asked how quickly a decision could be implemented to transfer production to tuna canning facilities elsewhere, one industry spokesman replied, ‘Minutes.’” In my opinion, a response like, ‘minutes’, from a cannery spokesman shows a disregard for our people and Territory and suggests that when our canneries go, they will give no notice.
StarKist and Chicken of the Sea also reported to the DOL that the tuna market is now focused on sealed foil packages rather than traditional canned tuna. If this is the case, it stands to reason that if StarKist and Chicken of the Sea were committed to us, they would be shifting production in American Samoa from cans to pouches so that we could grow with the industry. But, to my knowledge, neither cannery has implemented a large-scale plan that would change our operations.
I believe the reason for this is simple. Pouched tuna is generally hand-packed meaning it is a labor-intensive process. Labor rates in American Samoa are $3.76 and more per hour. In Thailand and South America, labor rates are sixty cents and less per hour. In other words, if StarKist and Chicken of the Sea have told DOL the truth, if the tuna market is moving from cans to pouches, our canneries will not stay with us under any circumstances given these differences in wage rates.
I, for one, do not believe our canneries will stay a “minute” longer than they have to especially since they testified before our Special Industry Committees that their guiding economic principle is ‘to maximize the return they give to their investors or shareholders.’ Put another way, if the market is going to pouches and if pouches increase their profits, our canneries will go elsewhere, no matter whether or not the minimum wage is increased and no matter whether or not we extend 30A benefits.
According to the DOL, when our canneries go, their closure will have a ripple effect on our economy and could amount to a loss of 7,825 jobs. This is unacceptable and this is why I have introduced H.R. 5154, a bill which would amend the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007 and condition further increases in minimum wage applicable to American Samoa and CNMI on a determination by the Secretary of Labor that such increases will not have an adverse impact on either economy.
I am also pushing forward to extend 30A tax benefits. Even though I know our canneries will depart at their convenience despite these incentives, I believe it is important for us to give our tuna canneries every reason to stay until the time comes for them to move elsewhere. Simply put, we must slow down the departure of our canneries until our economy is diversified.
By way of our mutual cooperation and based on the findings of the DOL study, I am confident that your office and mine, together with the Fono, can send a unified message to Congress requesting enactment of H.R. 5154 which will protect American Samoa’s economy and, at the request of Governor Ben Fitial, will also include CNMI. While I appreciate your thoughts regarding minimum wage as expressed in your letter of December 27, 2007, it was necessary for the DOL to issue its report before a bill could be introduced as Congress would take no action without knowing the findings of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As you know, my position has always been to introduce legislation as quickly as possible upon the release of the DOL report, and I am now enclosing H.R. 5154 for your information.