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85% Of Tuna Workers In American Samoa Are Foreigners

Common Cause American Samoa Inc. does not support Gov. Togiola Tulafono’s petition calling for a roll back of the federally mandated minimum wage, saying that such a call is “without merit and flies in the face of common sense.”

The petition, being circulated in the community by the Chamber of Commerce with help from the Commerce Department, local fishing association and the Office of Samoan Affairs calls on President Barack Obama to roll back the wage hikes and to appoint a special industry committee to review local wages.

However, the watch-dog group Common Cause has their own stand and has also written to Obama voicing their objection to rolling back wages, especially at a time when the cost of living is on the rise.

“Common Cause ... takes the position that our local government should work to improve the quality of life for all of its citizens including its legal guest workers,” the group’s president Dr. Trudie Sala wrote in a July 1 letter. “The idea being presented to you that holding or rolling-back the scheduled increase in the local minimum wage will somehow make for a better life for those of us who live in the territory is without merit and flies in the face of common sense.”

Obama was informed that the petition initiators — the governor and several ASG departments, the Chamber of Commerce and various companies or individuals, have “intrinsic interests in the tuna fishing/canning industry or other industries that rely on substandard wages for profit.”

“The pretext is that if the recently increased local minimum wage ... is not rescinded, somehow, massive economic disruption and possible investment for local business development will be affected,” the letter says.

In the case of the fishing industry many factors besides labor costs go into the cost of canning tuna and the survival of the tuna industry, said Sala.

“First and foremost is the declining fishing stocks and the spiraling energy costs related to harvesting and shipping,” she explained. ”In fact the buying power of those toiling at the bottom of the wage scale have seen a substantial decline (more than a third) in their living standard over the past twenty years while the cost of living has increased.”

She add, “this in spite of the recent local minimum wage increase.”

“Common Cause is not against law abiding private business organizations operating on our shores and contributing to the general welfare of our people,” she said. “We do insist, however, that all laws both local and federal be enforced. We insist that our environment be respected, our customs honored, and that the use of our infrastructure be compensated for.”

Common Cause board member Alofagia Vaita said the letter is going out this weekend with the hope that the White House receives it before the local petition is taken to Washington.

“The cost of living in American Samoa is extremely high and what many of our local workers are earning right now is nothing and cannot meet their expenses,” said Vaita, who noted they were approached by a handful of cannery workers concerned with the government’s move to halt or roll back minimum wages.

“Three people turned in their pay stubs as well as their expenses and their pay just does not help meet the expenses,” she said. “There is just no way can these individuals afford the cost of living compared to their pay.”

Information gathered by the group considers the purchasing power of a typical cannery employee (85% are foreign) living and working on island. With the wage hike that went into effect in May this year, the worker now makes $4.76 an hour (or $8,378 annually).

Allowing for tax and Social Security deductions, that employee’s net income is reduced by about 12% to 7,372. Then a typical employee has to pay transportation costs, to get to work and that is $4 per day ($4 X 220 days). That could reduce their income by $880 just for transportation costs.

Now that person’s gross income is $6,492 and if she or he is lucky and has a good sponsor and a good matai in the village where the person lives, the worker might get-by with spending $50 a month for his or her share of the village assessments, or fa’alavelave ($50 x 12 months that’s $600). Now the income is reduced further down but other expenses remain to be paid such as water and electric bills, sending money back home to Samoa, food and clothing and in the end it further reduces that person’s paycheck.