Minimum-Wage Bill Stirs Controversy in Pacific Islands

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

After years of protection from the likes of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, employers on the Northern Mariana Islands would finally have to pay workers the federal minimum wage under legislation before the House tomorrow.

Democrats have long tried to pull the Northern Marianas under the umbrella of U.S. labor laws, accusing the island government and its industry leaders of coddling sweatshops and turning a blind eye to forced abortions and indentured servitude. But Abramoff, the once-powerful Republican lobbyist now in federal prison, spent millions of dollars from the island and its business interests currying favor with Republicans, aligning support with conservative interest groups and thwarting every effort to intervene in the Northern Marianas' economy.

But Republican leadership aides accused the Democrats of using a double standard by imposing the higher minimum wage on a government with a Republican representative to the United States while continuing to exempt a territory with a Democratic delegate. American Samoa and the tuna industry that dominates its economy would remain free to pay wages that are less than half the bill's mandatory minimum.

Ever since Abramoff's lobbying scandal broke, top Democrats have been eager to highlight the labor-rights records of the Northern Mariana Islands. The islands were a top client of Abramoff's and had close ties to DeLay, the onetime House majority leader from Texas, and other Republicans. Those Democrats asserted that by finally bringing the islands under U.S. minimum-wage law, they could demonstrate that their party had broken through the steel ring of protection erected by Abramoff and his allies.

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.

The wage bill coming to a vote would raise the federal minimum from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 over two years, the first such increase since 1997. The 10-year stretch between wage increases is the longest since the mandatory minimum was created, and passage is expected to be overwhelming.

By including the Northern Marianas, Democrats say they hope to end abusive sweatshops, especially in the garment industry. Miller has told harrowing stories of meeting veiled or masked indentured servants and wage slaves in Mariana Islands churches, who told their stories under the threat of grievous retaliation from their employers. But Miller's efforts to bring the islands under U.S. labor laws were thwarted repeatedly by Abramoff allies, who maintained the islands have been a business-friendly model of free enterprise in the Pacific.

"I have been trying to fix the deplorable situation in the Northern Marianas since I first held hearings on the issue in 1992, 15 years ago," Miller said. "But under Republican control, the House never even held a hearing."

American Samoa has had a smattering of its own negative publicity, and an Education and Labor Committee aide said yesterday that Miller probably will seek a review of the island's labor relations. Just last month, the U.S. District Court in Hawaii upheld the conviction of a Korean sweatshop owner, who held 17 workers in involuntary servitude in American Samoa, imprisoning them in his garment factory compound.

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.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company