Congressman Faleomavaega announced today that in response to articles by the Washington Post and inquiries by the Washington Times he is speaking out about the minimum wage bill recently introduced by the House leadership.
“Despite recent claims made by the Washington Post which suggest that American Samoa is exempt from the federal minimum wage process, I wish to set the record straight,” Faleomavaega said.
“The Fair Labor Standards Act has applied to American Samoa since 1938. After enactment, Industry Committees were established to phase low-wage industries in to the minimum statutory wage making American Samoa, as well as all other US Territories, exempt from mainland minimums but bound by minimums determined by Special Industry Committees. At the time, Congress believed that application of mainland minimum wage rates to territorial island industries would ‘cause serious dislocation in some insular industries and curtail employment opportunities.’”
“For this reason, since 1956, and in accordance with Sections 5, 6, and 8 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S.C. Sections 205, 206, 208), the Wage and Hour Division of the US Department of Labor continues to conduct Special Industry Committees every two years in American Samoa to determine minimum wage increases.”
“While these Industry Committees have been phased out in other US Territories due to their more diversified economies, American Samoa continues to be a single industry economy. In fact, more than 80% of our private sector economy is dependent either directly, or indirectly, on two U.S. tuna processors, Chicken of the Sea and StarKist. As has been repeatedly stated at our Special Industry Committees, a decrease in production or departure of one or both of the two canneries in American Samoa could devastate the local economy resulting in massive layoffs and insurmountable financial difficulties.”
“For this very reason, I do not support efforts to apply mainland minimums to American Samoa at this time. The truth is the global tuna industry is so competitive that it is no longer possible for the federal government to demand mainland minimum wage rates for American Samoa without causing the collapse of our economy and making us welfare wards of the federal government.”
“However, I continue to believe it is a crying shame that for years StarKist’s parent company, Heinz, paid its corporate executives over $30 million per year in salary and stock options and bonuses while workers in American Samoa have not been paid decent wages on scale with our local economy. This is why I have fought year after year for increased wages for our tuna cannery workers and I will continue to make my views known before Special Industry Committees which have been established by federal law.”
“CNMI should follow suit and support Special Industry Committees which are in place to protect workers from labor rights abuses. Ten years ago, I suggested to CNMI leaders that they should come under the umbrella of federal law and support Special Industry Committees but CNMI failed to take action. In other words, unlike American Samoa, CNMI is operating outside of the scope and intent of the Fair Labor Standards Act and this has led to well-documented worker abuse. For this reason, my colleagues have taken a stand and said enough is enough and I support Chairman George Miller’s initiative to end labor rights abuses.”
“Finally, I am aware that some may point a finger at American Samoa as a result of labor violations at the Daewoosa garment factory. But, in response, let me say that I personally called for a federal investigation into the reported abuses and the federal government took immediate action. Consequently, the owner of the factory, Kil Soo Lee, was prosecuted in federal court and the factory was subsequently shut down. Since this time, American Samoa has had no further labor violations.”
“While I understand that for partisan purposes some might like to compare American Samoa and CNMI in terms of the federal minimum wage debate, I conclude by emphatically stating that CNMI and American Samoa are not alike in terms of our political relationships with the United States. CNMI is under a “covenant” relationship and American Samoa is an “unincorporated” and “unorganized” territory. Our situations involving minimum wage are entirely different. American Samoa complies with the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act as determined by Special Industry Committees.”
“By terms of its covenant, CNMI is exempt from compliance. However, with the minimum wage bill now before Congress, there is some question as to whether or not CNMI should be brought under the purview of federal labor laws.”
“Whatever Congress decides for CNMI, I am hopeful that Members of Congress will recognize that American Samoa is different and that what Congress has established for our Territory is necessary for economic stability,” Faleomavaega concluded.