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Monday, October 5, 2009
Ravaged Samoa
By Selected News Articles @ 4:26 PM :: 5393 Views :: National News, Ethics

LINK: From Forbes Magazine ---- Commentary by David Cohen

RELATED: Support Samoa/Philippines relief: Downtown Honolulu Tuesday 11am-1pm

The earthquake that triggered the worst natural disaster to hit the Samoan islands in decades came, as earthquakes do, without warning. The earthquake and resulting tsunami struck exactly one day before another disaster, one for which there was ample warning: Earlier this year, COS Samoa Packing Company, which owns one of two tuna canneries that dominate American Samoa's fragile economy, announced that it would shut down Sept. 30.

The news set off fears of an economic meltdown not only in American Samoa but also in the neighboring independent nation of Samoa, the citizens of which have filled most of the cannery's jobs and provided a steady flow of remittance income back home.

While both Samoas have been bracing for this economic disaster for quite some time, nature has once again asserted its supremacy on these islands. The significance of the man-made Sept. 30 event has, at least for the time being, been washed out to sea with the receding waters of the tsunami--a mere "morning after" to a more violent disaster.

The plant closure is far from people's minds as they frantically search for missing loved ones, grieve for those who have been found, plan funerals, tend to the wounded, shepherd the sick and elderly up and down the mountain, shelter the homeless, clean up the horrendous mess of mud and debris and start to rebuild the homes, businesses and entire villages that have been completely destroyed. Islanders are used to cleaning up after destructive bouts with nature--most commonly after hurricanes, as they're known in the South Pacific, or typhoons, as they're known in the North Pacific. It's part of island life.

As of this writing, the official death toll in both Samoas was hovering around 100. This figure will almost certainly increase as rescue teams reach remote villages and as more of the missing become accounted for in one way or the other. President Obama has declared a major disaster for American Samoa, which will trigger the deployment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to direct the response effort. The Independent State of Samoa--the official name of the sovereign island nation commonly known as Samoa and formerly known as Western Samoa--is not eligible for FEMA assistance.

News of the earthquake and tsunami set the Web in a minor frenzy as the islander Diaspora, frustrated by the inability to reach the stricken areas by phone, scrambled to find information on their loved ones back home. As with the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran, Facebook and Twitter became clearinghouses for information about the situation in general and about specific family members and friends. For likely the first time in history, "American Samoa" became, for at least a brief period on Sept. 29, the most searched term on Yahoo!.

As a small community, Samoans are used to taking whatever attention they can get. Typically, that attention comes from Samoan athletes and other celebrities such as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Troy Polamalu and Junior Seau. Ironically, Samoa is currently in the spotlight because the new season of "Survivor" shows men and women battling the elements (and each other) there. The tsunami has now brought attention to Samoa in a much more tragic way.

On a personal note, I have a great deal of family in both Samoas and have spent much time on Facebook trying to keep up with the news and account for relatives. I was alarmed when I received a Facebook posting that the Development Bank of American Samoa headquarters had been destroyed; my first cousin works in that building. I then tried, unsuccessfully, to reach him by phone and email. Fortunately--my sister later posted--he was fine, but his village had suffered heavy damage, and he was working to evacuate his fellow villagers--including our elderly aunt and uncle--to higher ground.

That exchange was one of hundreds I have seen flying across my Facebook homepage since the first reports of the earthquake: Samoans around the world reaching out for information on family back home, sometimes relieved to eventually receive reassurance that their loved ones were safe; sometimes receiving no such reassurance. I was heartbroken to read this update from a young Samoan woman posting helplessly from Hawaii: "Grandma might have been swept away. Grandma we love you and I am still praying for your return! I love you and tears are just rolling down my eyes!"

Tragedies will continue to unfold in the coming days, and happy reunions will, we hope, occur as well. But as the adrenaline enabling Samoans to fight through the current emergency subsides, the islanders will be left to deal with the sobering aftermath not only of the unforeseen natural tsunami, but of the scheduled economic one.

Tuna canneries have been the foundation of American Samoa's economy since the 1950s. Until recently, the COS Samoa Packing Company plant (which canned Chicken of the Sea tuna) and a competing StarKist plant together accounted for about two-thirds of the U.S. supply of canned tuna. The two plants together employed 4,757 workers, representing over 27% of all jobs in American Samoa. Over 40% of those jobs will be lost with the closure of the Chicken of the Sea plant, although the American Samoa Government is attempting to find the money to buy the plant and re-open it on a much smaller scale. Even more troublesome is speculation that the StarKist plant, which faces the same international competitive pressures that forced the Chicken of the Sea plant to close, cannot survive in the long run.

For years, American Samoa enjoyed an exemption from the federal minimum wage, and the minimum wage applicable to American Samoa's canneries was $3.26 per hour as recently as 2007. (American Samoa had separate minimum wages for each industry.) Even with wages that were very low by U.S. standards, the American Samoa canneries found it difficult to compete with canneries in places like Thailand that pay wages of 60 to 70 cents per hour. That competition became more difficult in 2007, when Congress passed legislation requiring all minimum wages in American Samoa to increase, in stages, to $7.25 per hour by 2014.

Actually, American Samoa's inclusion in the 2007 minimum wage law could be characterized as political collateral damage. Prior to the 2007 legislation, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands were the only two U.S. territories exempt from the federal minimum wage. Democrats, fresh from winning control of Congress in the 2006 elections, were intent on revoking the Northern Marianas' minimum wage exemption because of the historical problems with that territory's garment industry. Since the 1980s, businesses had availed themselves of the minimum wage exemption in the Northern Marianas, together with the territory's exemption from federal immigration law, to build a garment industry fueled by cheap labor imported mostly from China.

After controversy arose over sweatshop conditions in Northern Mariana's garment factories, the local government and garment magnate Willie Tan hired lobbyist Jack Abramoff--with his close ties to future House Majority Leader Tom DeLay--to fight off federal efforts to eliminate the territory's wage and immigration exemptions. Those efforts were successful for a while, but Abramoff and DeLay had both been brought down by legal problems by the time the Democrats retook Congress in 2006.

California Democrat George Miller, who had unsuccessfully led the charge against Abramoff and DeLay during the earlier effort to bring the Northern Marianas under full federal control, became chairman of the powerful House committee responsible for minimum wage legislation. Miller and his colleagues quickly introduced legislation that would increase the minimum wage for the entire country and would for the first time subject the Northern Marianas, but not American Samoa, to the federal minimum wage.

House Republicans, some of whom had fought Miller during the partisan battles over the Northern Marianas garment industry, pounced on the omission of American Samoa. Why, they asked, was the federal minimum wage being extended to the Northern Mariana Islands but not to American Samoa? Could it be because the largest private employer in American Samoa was StarKist, which was owned (at the time) by Del Monte, which was headquartered in the congressional district represented by ... House Speaker Nancy Pelosi?! Aha!

In fact, there were legitimate reasons for targeting the Northern Mariana Islands and not American Samoa. The Northern Mariana Islands had used its exemption from federal wage and immigration law to import cheap labor from places like China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand, resulting in a private sector staffed almost entirely by a foreign underclass. American Samoa had also used its federal exemptions to import cheap labor, but in American Samoa's case, the laborers were fellow Samoans.

Although the European powers divided Samoa in two at the turn of the 20th century, the two Samoas have always been highly intertwined through culture, language, family and economics. Samoan workers in American Samoa were therefore not as vulnerable to the type of ethnic exploitation that existed in the Northern Marianas. And while the Northern Marianas had earned an international black eye in the 1990s from revelations about working conditions in the garment industry, American Samoa's tuna canneries had a better (albeit not perfect) reputation.

There was also the fact the Northern Marianas, unlike American Samoa, had a second significant industry: tourism. Guam, next door to the Northern Marianas, had proved that a tourism industry could survive paying the federal minimum wage. American Samoa, because of its remoteness and in spite of its stunning natural beauty (tarnished only slightly by the canneries), had never succeeded in developing a significant tourism industry. It was dependent upon its low-wage tuna industry to an even greater extent than the Northern Marianas were dependent on the low-wage garment industry.

In spite of these distinctions between the Northern Marianas and American Samoa, Speaker Pelosi became very uncomfortable in early 2007 when she was asked whether she had left American Samoa out of the minimum wage bill in order to protect her constituent Del Monte. Shortly thereafter, the bill was revised to apply the federal minimum wage to American Samoa.

This all goes to show that as a tiny island community in the middle of the Pacific, American Samoa is at the mercy of powerful forces beyond its control--forces of nature and political forces of the great superpower to which its destiny has been hitched for more than a century. Samoans face the daunting prospect of rebuilding from the worst natural disaster in their recent memory even as the ground is, economically speaking, sinking beneath their feet.

One can think of American Samoa's economy as a three-legged stool, with one leg being the tuna industry, one leg being the local government (which actually employs slightly more workers than the tuna industry) and the third leg being the anemic remainder of the private sector. The remainder of the private sector is supported primarily--directly or indirectly--by purchases from the tuna industry and from local government. The government is supported primarily by revenues generated by the tuna industry; it is also supported somewhat by revenues generated by the rest of the private sector, which in turn is heavily dependent upon the tuna industry.

If you remove the tuna industry leg, the stool comes tumbling down, like a piece of debris tossed about by this week's tsunami. American Samoa is already poorer than any state in America and any other territory. It is about to get poorer still.

Independent Samoa is about to get poorer as well, faced with both the loss of remittances and the prospect of thousands returning home unemployed. Independent Samoa must sometimes pay a price for its economic integration into American Samoa, just as American Samoa must sometimes pay a price for its integration into a superpower that is not always focused on how policies designed for the U.S. mainland can have unintended and harsh consequences when applied to the most remote corners of America.

To be sure, American Samoa has received many benefits from being part of the American family, and some of those benefits will be on display as FEMA parachutes in with much-needed supplies, resources and know-how. American Samoa has also given much to America, particularly by sacrificing far more of its young men and women per capita in Iraq and Afghanistan than any state in the U.S. By its great patriotism and consistently disproportionate willingness to spill the blood of its best and brightest to defend America, American Samoa has more than earned any assistance Uncle Sam may be willing to provide it in its hour of need.

If America's smallest, poorest and most fragile territory is allowed to collapse because of Washington's indifference, the slogan "Where America's Day Ends"--arising from American Samoa's proximity to the International Date Line--may take on a darker and more ironic meaning that was never intended.

---30---

Papali'i David B. Cohen served as U.S. representative to the pacific community and deputy assistant secretary of the Interior for insular affairs during the administration of George W. Bush. He is currently working on a book about his journey from liberalism to conservatism.

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