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Minimum wage continues as issue of economy vs. cost of living

StarKist Co. has applauded Congresswoman Aumua Amata’s work in Congress to ensure labor issues in American Samoa are addressed in the most productive way possible for all parties.

Amata introduced last week Tuesday in the US House, federal legislation, “Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007” that would restore the system in place prior to 2007, when minimum wages were set by a Special Industry Committee, appointed by the US Secretary of Labor. (See yesterday’s Samoa News edition for details on the news release.)

Responding to Samoa News request for comments on Amata’s bill, StarKist corporate spokesperson Michelle Faist said the company appreciates and welcomes the Congresswoman’s initiative.

“We look forward to working with her and her office to ensure that labor issues in American Samoa are addressed in the most productive way possible for all interested parties,” Faist said yesterday morning from the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“We thank her for her leadership and ongoing attention to strengthen the economic foundation of American Samoa to benefit the territory’s future. The Congresswoman continues to bring attention to the issues facing American Samoa and we applaud her efforts,” Faist continued.

The legislation, which has since been assigned to the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce, is supported by ASG.

Commerce Department Director, Keniseli Lafaele told Samoa News last week that this is one issue that ASG leaders and Aumua “all agree on — no automatic increase in the minimum wage without careful review of local conditions — our economy.” (See Samoa News June 22 edition for details.)

Samoa News sought reactions from as many StarKist Samoa cannery workers as possible on Amata’s bill, and they all offered different views. However, what was reflected from the many comments are the concerns that another minimum wage increase will result in the closure of StarKist, just like its competitors — COS Samoa Packing, which closed operations in September 2009; and Samoa Tuna Processors cannery last December.

“I would like to see a wage increase because that means additional money for my family, giving more to help my children; but what good is the extra income if that would result in the cannery closing and I would be left with no job,” said one long time cannery worker.

A cannery shift supervisor said, “I would like to see at least a minimum wage increase like every two years, instead of the current [federal] law of every three years, because the cost of living appears to be going up every year.” Additionally, “our workers are hard working Samoan people, who deserve decent wages.”

Samoa News also reached out to non-cannery workers in the private sector, and some of them questioned the “fairness” of having minimum wages set locally.

“At least when Congress gives a mandate, all employers must follow. If we return to the old system prior to 2007, then there should be a whole community involvement in setting wages, not just certain people, who will end up favoring the employer” said one private sector supervisor. “I recall years ago, when the Special Industry Committee set wages — and employees got a small little wage hike of 10-cents or 15-cents. Now is that fair — 10-cents or 15-cents — for our workforce?”

The US Government Accountability Office report released last December on the impact of the federally mandated minimum wage on American Samoa, states that from 2007 to 2014, overall employment fell by 4%, and workers’ average inflation-adjusted earnings fell by about 11%.

During the same period, cannery employment decreased by 50% and the minimum wage for cannery workers rose.

The report also notes that cannery officials reported labor costs and fisheries access among the challenges of operating in the territory, and that one of the two canneries announced plans to suspend operations indefinitely in December 2016.

The American Samoa Government has expressed concern that continued minimum wage increases are at odds with sustainable economic development, and notes that as of January 2016, StarKist employed 2,094 hourly wage workers in the territory.

According to the report, in August 2015, Commerce Department completed a living-wage study identifying $5.67 as the minimum wage needed for a family of six to afford to live in the territory. However, the proposed living wage of $5.67 exceeds the hourly minimum wage for cannery workers by $0.51