As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Understanding the GOP Shitstorm Over American Samoa

While I was quite amused by Barney Frank's takedown of Patrick McHenry on the House floor, I was left wondering what the hell it was all about. McHenry, the designated Republican attack dog and the heir apparent to Gingrich and DeLay, was attempting to ask a question about whether American Samoa was exempted from the stem cell research bill that passed the House yesterday. McHenry is apparently completely ignorant of parliamentary procedure, or perhaps he just wanted to get the words "American Samoa" on C-SPAN. Because there's a growing shitstorm over a similar "exemption" for American Samoa in the recently passed minimum wage bill. From the fair and balanced Washington Times:

House Republicans yesterday declared "something fishy" about the major tuna company in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco district being exempted from the minimum-wage increase that Democrats approved this week.

"I am shocked," said Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican and his party's chief deputy whip, noting that Mrs. Pelosi campaigned heavily on promises of honest government. "Now we find out that she is exempting hometown companies from minimum wage. This is exactly the hypocrisy and double talk that we have come to expect from the Democrats."

On Wednesday, the House voted to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour.

The bill also extends for the first time the federal minimum wage to the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands. However, it exempts American Samoa, another Pacific island territory that would become the only U.S. territory not subject to federal minimum-wage laws.

One of the biggest opponents of the federal minimum wage in Samoa is StarKist Tuna, which owns one of the two packing plants that together employ more than 5,000 Samoans, or nearly 75 percent of the island's work force. StarKist's parent company, Del Monte Corp., has headquarters in San Francisco, which is represented by Mrs. Pelosi. The other plant belongs to California-based Chicken of the Sea.

"There's something fishy going on here," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican.

There's a lot going on here. First of all, the sudden concern in the Republican delegation for the people of American Samoa is touching (If only they could locate the territory on a map). It's certainly not a concern they shared for the millions of Americans who they denied the minimum wage for nine years. It's not a concern they shared for the workers of the Marianas Islands, where forced abortions, sexual slavery and other predations characterized a work environment that the Republican majority never saw fit to overturn (maybe because Jack Abramoff was their chief lobbyist). And, it's interesting, to say the least, that this concern came out AFTER the vote rather than before it, even though this time, unlike under Republican control, legislators had ample time to read the bill.

However, there is a grain of truth here, and progressives would do well to address it. I don't subscribe to the "everybody does it" defense of corruption the way many conservative apologists do. Corruption is not a partisan issue, and I refuse to defend those who betray the public trust. My belief is, instead of "everybody does it" and leaving it alone, is to say "Yeah, and when WE do it, we act swiftly and ethically; you try to sweep it under the rug." To that end, I think it's necessary and vital to try and understand exactly what's going on with this charge.

First of all, it's important to note that the substance of the Republican argument, that the minimum wage bill specifically exempts American Samoa from federal minimum wage laws, is factually incorrect. American Samoa has ALREADY been exempt from those laws for some time, including for 12 years under a Republican majority. Currently wage floors in American Samoa are set by the US Department of Labor.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), applies generally to employment within American Samoa as it does to employment within the United States. The minimum wage rates for American Samoa are set by a special industry committee (29 U.S.C. 205, 29 C.F.R. Part 511) appointed by the U.S. Department of Labor, as required by the Act. The rates are set for particular industries, not for an employee's particular occupation. The rates are minimum rates (29 U.S.C. 206(a)(3)); an employer may choose to pay an employee at a rate higher than the rate(s) for its industry.

The Act contains a number of additional requirements, including the payment of premium rates to certain covered employees who work more than 40 hours in a workweek (29 U.S.C. 207), limitations on the employment of minors, and provisions relating to the Act's coverage and exceptions to and exemptions from some of the Act's general requirements.

Here is a list (PDF) of the specific wage floors for various industries in the territory.

Unlike the CNMI, which was abusing labor practices, American Samoa is subject to most all of the labor standards of the United States with the exception of the minimum wage. Because of the revelations of abuse, Democrats sought to remove the CNMI's exemption: it could fairly be seen as punishment. So, the bill did not specifically exempt American Samoa from the US minimum wage; instead it did not lift an exemption that is current US law. This may sound semantic to the skeptical, but it most certainly is not. Refusing to lift an exemption that was instituted under another set of lawmakers is a far cry from specifically finding a particular territory to reward with a chit.

The other part of this charge is that Nancy Pelosi is somehow rewarding Del Monte, a constituent business, by leaving low wages in place in a part of the world where Starkist Tuna operates (their parent company is Del Monte). The implication is that Pelosi is corrupt for handing out a favor to a business with interests in her district. But that could only be true if Pelosi wrote the bill or made the decision to leave the exemption on American Samoa in place, and the Washington Post reports that it was not her call.

Ever since Abramoff's lobbying scandal broke, top Democrats have been eager to highlight the labor-rights records of the Northern Mariana Islands...

But 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 said he does 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 as little as 66 cents an hour. The message got through to House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), the sponsor of the minimum-wage bill that included the Marianas but not Samoa, according to committee aides. The aides said the Samoan economy does not have the diversity and vibrancy to handle the mainland's minimum wage, nor does the island have anything like the labor rights abuses Miller found in the Marianas.

You can debate whether or not the Samoan representative's argument holds water, and I will in a minute. But the point is that George Miller wrote the bill, not Nancy Pelosi. Republicans are showing a slight ignorance of how government works here. The Speaker may have had a hand in legislation; it's certainly possible. But Miller appears to have made this decision on his own. And furthermore, this item from CNS News, which is not well-sourced, suggests that Pelosi made a point of involving herself today.

Republicans say she tried to. But on Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear that the new federal minimum wage would apply to all U.S. territories, including American Samoa. This happened after Republicans accused Pelosi of doing a favor for a hometown company - the San Francisco-based Del Monte.

Now, all that said, do I think it's fair for American Samoa to be exempted from the minimum wage in the first place? Probably not. From WaPo, here's essentially the crux of the argument:

But in American Samoa, it is the tuna industry that rules the roost. Canneries employ nearly 5,000 workers on the island, or 40 percent of the workforce, paying $3.60 an hour on average, compared with $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.

Faleomavaega's aides said yesterday that the delegate was in American Samoa for the opening session of the island's government and would not comment. But he is no stranger to the minimum-wage issue. 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 executives from StarKist and parent company Del Monte Foods. "It is not fair to pay a corporate executive $65 million a year while a cannery worker only makes $3.60 per hour."

But after the same meeting, Faleomavaega also said he understood that the Samoan canneries were facing severe wage competition from South American and Asian competitors. Democratic aides familiar with the issue said Faleomavaega is not about to allow the federal minimum wage to reach Samoa -- and perhaps for good reason.

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 as wards of the federal welfare state, warned David B. Cohen, deputy assistant secretary of the interior for insular affairs.

While Samoa is certainly nowhere near as corrupt as the Marianas Islands, they're not exactly clean. The Post report adds that a Korean sweatshop owner's conviction for holding 17 garment workers in involuntary servitude was recently upheld in US District Court. And the other thing is that American Samoa is actually a comparatively expensive place to live. It's hard to find exact cost of living statistics for the territory, but this report (PDF) claims it's gone up by about 3.8% annually since 1982.

Coupled with low-income levels is the ever-increasing cost of living. .Since 1982, the current index registered at 153.8 index points as of the fourth quarter of 1996. This means that the cost of living has increased by close to 54 percent, or an annual average of about 3.8 percent. A single household in American Samoa spent an average of about $18,318 in 1988 compared to $12,235 in 1982. More than 50 percent of average spending went to food and housing. Special expenditures such as church donations, customary gifts, and fa’alavelave (family affairs, such as funerals, weddings and title investitures) remained a significant portion of Samoan household spending.

A significant source of spending associated with fa’alavelave is the necessity for uniforms. Uniforms are needed for many occasions, ranging from church functions to civic organizations, as well as primary and secondary school uniforms. The uniforms cost from $10.00 to $30.00 at local sewing shops, not including the fabric and notions. For low-income families, these costs can be difficult to manage. The ability to sew can save the average family hundreds of dollars in sewing costs per year.

Unemployment in American Samoa is estimated at about 5.2%. There are few economic opportunities outside of the local government and the tuna canneries. Emigration to the mainland in search of jobs is common; for those left behind, there is a great need to offer ways to supplement family income.

I think it's wrong to force people on American protectorates to supplement their income when so many of them are working for a multinational business. It was wrong what it occurred under Republican control for 12 years, and it's wrong that it was not remedied by this Democratic Congress. I understand the counter-arguments, and agree that it's a tough call: making an entire country into a welfare state wouldn't exactly please Republicans either, and the wage pressure in the region is certainly not made-up. This is why I support global labor and environmental standards to increase US competitiveness, using the lure of our market as a means to level the playing field. It's a close call, but I will stand with the people of American Samoa. Starkist will go where the tuna are, no?

My point in writing all of this is that we, the people, have a responsibility to understand the totality of arguments and not just the bullet-point spin, and to make our own determinations, and then to advocate them to our representatives in the government. We have to go digging for it, because typically the media will not provide the proper context. That's one of the goals of ours as well. But I refuse to accept the stance of always defending my party and putting it above the greater principles of fairness and trust. It's very important to keep this in mind and not make knee-jerk reactions to criticisms. They may be flawed, but the truth will eventually out, and I'd rather be right than an apologist, which would make me no different than those on the other side of the aisle.