WASHINGTON – San
Diego's Chicken of the Sea is caught in the political
churning on Capitol Hill over whether American Samoa and
the tuna industry that dominates the island should be
required to impose a minimum wage that could double the
average wage there now.
Representatives of the tuna industry worry that such
wage increases would devastate the American Samoan economy
as it tries to compete with much lower-wage tuna
processing facilities elsewhere in the developing world.
As a U.S. territory, American Samoa isn't subject to
U.S. labor laws. Instead, the U.S. Labor Department
oversees a special committee that sets the Polynesian
territory's wage standards. For years, American Samoa's
lower wages reflected the generally lower cost of living
More than 80 percent of American Samoa's private
economy depends on two tuna processors, Chicken of the
Sea, and StarKist, based in San Francisco, which also
opposes changes in the salary's ceilings.
Republicans are pushing for Congress to dramatically
increase American Samoa's wages to be in line with
minimums that apply to the states.
The Democratic-controlled House recently voted to raise
the minimum wage in the Northern Marianas Islands but not
American Samoa. The Northern Marianas are dominated by
Republicans, while American Samoa leans Democratic. GOP
lawmakers said the House exemption for American Samoa
reflected favoritism for the American Samoa House
delegate, Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, a Democrat, who opposes
the higher minimums.
The string of islands' two canneries say they are
trying to stay away from the congressional debate.
Faleomavaega said exorbitant wage increases could
result in the departure of one of the canneries or a
decrease in production from the Pacific territory. The
result “could devastate the local economy, resulting in
massive layoffs and insurmountable financial
difficulties,” he said.
American Samoa tuna processors pay a minimum wage of
$3.26. Its competitors, including foreign processors in
the Philippines and Thailand, pay only 67 cents per hour.
China and Vietnam pay less than 20 cents per hour.
After nearly a decade of debate on the issue, the House
recently passed a bill that would boost the minimum wage
from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 per hour in increments over
the next two years.
The Senate last week delayed consideration of
legislation to raise the minimum wage.
Rep. George Miller, D-Concord, chairman of the House
Education and Labor Committee, authored the minimum wage
bill that included the Northern Marianas but not Samoa.
Miller had visited Northern Marianas in the 1990s and
determined there were massive labor abuses in the island
and its wages should be increased, his spokesman said.
Since Republicans have complained about America Samoa's
exemption to the House minimum wage bill, however, Miller
has decided to re-examine the issue. American Samoa is the
only territory not subject to the minimum wage provisions.
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. charged that House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, worked to exempt StarKist,
owned by Del Monte Foods of San Francisco, from the bill.
Del Monte and Pelosi have denied the claims.
But Pelosi asked the House Education and Labor
Committee to review the wage situation involving American
Samoa, which has a population of more than 57,000.
“Congress needs to make sure that workers are paid and
treated fairly in all U.S. states and territories,” said
Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Miller. “Wages in American
Samoa remain low by national standards. Anytime anyone
raises a policy issue, (Miller) is willing to look at it.”
Miller said he wants to ensure the wage board is acting
“Our committee will review minimum wage standards in
American Samoa to determine how we can ensure the fair
treatment of Samoan workers,” said Miller's spokesman,
In determining whether to change wage ceilings, the
board takes into account several factors, including
standard of living and determines whether wages would
adversely affect employment. Since 1987, wage boards for
American Samoa have increased minimum wages for tuna
cannery workers eight times.
The two American Samoa processors, Chicken of the Sea
and StarKist, said they supported delegate Faleomavaega's
actions, but appeared to be reluctant to become engaged in
a full-blown political debate over the minimum wage.
Chicken of the Sea employs more than 1,000 employees in
American Samoa and 100 in San Diego.
Chicken of the Sea spokesman Mike Rose said
Faleomavaega “sums up the situation best” in his statement
that he did “not support efforts to fully maintain
minimums to America Samoa at this time.”
“This is a political debate better left with the
lawmakers, and it's our hope that at the conclusion of
this, it's in the best interest of the people of American
Samoa,” Rose said.
Melissa Murphy Brown, a spokeswoman for Del Monte
Foods, the owner of StarKist, said the company supports
Faleomavaega, saying that he is working to keep the
“fishing and tuna canning industries viable in American
Samoa.” StarKist employs more than 5,000 Samoans.
Bumble Bee, the other major tuna producer based in San
Diego, has production locations in the United States,
Puerto Rico, Canada, Fiji, Trinidad, and Mauritius.
It has no plants in American Samoa, but its officials
said they oppose any increase in the minimum wage.
Such increases “will negatively impact the cost of
production for American processors and provide further
disadvantages compared to foreign imports,” said David F.
Melbourne, senior vice president for Bumble Bee Foods.