Thursday, January 11, 2007

The politics of textiles and tuna

The big fish of the tuna industry are cut from a different political cloth but somehow have managed to avoid the clout of the textile unions. Politics makes for some strange bed linens.

Why is American Samoa exempted from wage hike?
Under a Democrat-backed legislation that is now before the House of Representatives, employers on the Northern Mariana Islands would have to pay workers the federal minimum wage. American Samoa and the tuna industry that dominates its economy would, on the other hand, remain free to pay wages less than half the bill's new mandatory minimum.

Samoa has escaped such notoriety, and its low-wage canneries have a protector of a different political stripe, Democratic delegate Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, whose campaign coffers have been well stocked by the tuna industry that virtually runs his island's economy.

Faleomavaega has long made it clear he did not believe his island's economy could handle the federal minimum wage, issuing statements of sympathy for a Samoan tuna industry competing with South American and Asian canneries paying workers about 67 cents an hour.

The message got through to House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., the author of the minimum wage bill who included the Marianas but not Samoa, according to committee aides. The aides said the Samoan economy does not have the diversity and vibrance to handle the mainland's minimum wage ....

By including the Northern Marianas, Democrats say they hope to put an end to abusive sweatshops, especially in the garment industry. “I have been trying to fix the deplorable situation in the Northern Marianas since I first held hearings on the issue in 1992, 15 years ago,” Miller said. “But under Republican control, the House never even held a hearing.”

American Samoa has had a smattering of its own negative publicity, and an Education and Labor Committee aide said Monday that Miller probably will seek a review of the island's labor relations.

Last month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii upheld the conviction of a Korean sweatshop owner, who held 17 workers in involuntary servitude in American Samoa, imprisoning them in his garment factory compound.

But in American Samoa the tuna industry rules the roost. Canneries employ nearly 5,000 workers on the island, or 40 percent of the work force, paying on average $3.60 an hour, compared to $7.99 an hour for Samoan government employees. Samoan minimum wage rates are set by federal industry committees, which visit the island every two years.

When StarKist lobbied in the past to prevent small minimum wage hikes, Faleomavaega denounced the efforts.

“StarKist is a billion dollar a year company,” he said after a 2003 meeting with StarKist and Del Monte executives. “It is not fair to pay a corporate executive $65 million a year while a cannery work only makes $3.60 per hour.”

But after the same meeting, Faleomavaega said he understood that the Samoan canneries were facing severe wage competition from South American and Asian competitors.

Department of Interior testimony last year before the Senate noted that canneries in Thailand and the Philippines were paying their workers about 67 cents an hour. If the canneries left American Samoa en masse, the impact would be devastating, leaving Samoans wards of the federal welfare state, warned David Cohen, deputy assistant secretary of the interior for insular affairs.

For more on this subject, see: With DeLay Gone, Pay Raise for Island Factory Workers by Rhonda Schwartz

You just have to wonder how much of this attention is genuine concern or simple political point scoring.

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