The Democrat-controlled Senate took up a bill yesterday that would raise the minimum wage across the United States and its territories but exempt American Samoa, where tuna canneries pay workers $3.26 an hour.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters less than two weeks ago that she would close the loophole after coming under criticism from Republicans for what they termed a "fishy favor" to StarKist Tuna. StarKist has lobbied for years against raising the minimum wage in American Samoa, and its parent, Del Monte Corp., is based in Mrs. Pelosi's San Francisco district.
"I have asked the education and labor committee as they go forward with the legislation to make sure that all of the territories have to comply with U.S. law on the minimum wage," Mrs. Pelosi said earlier this month.
The House, however, passed the minimum-wage bill with the American Samoa exemption. And yesterday, Senate Democrats were moving ahead with the original legislation, which for the first time would enforce the minimum wage on the Northern Mariana Islands, another territory in the Pacific with a similarly low minimum wage.
That bill is co-sponsored by several dozen Democrats, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California.
In addition to San Francisco-based StarKist, San Diego-based Chicken of the Sea also has a cannery in American Samoa. Together, the California companies employ about 75 percent of the Samoan work force.
Democrats said they are imposing the wage increase on the Northern Marianas -- a proposal long blocked by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican -- because of the harsh labor conditions there.
Delegate Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, a nonvoting Democrat representing American Samoa, opposes extending the minimum wage to that territory.
A "decrease in production or departure of one or both of the two canneries in American Samoa could devastate the local economy, resulting in massive layoffs and insurmountable financial difficulties," he said, echoing the arguments of conservatives against applying the wage to poorer regions of the U.S.
"The truth is the global tuna industry is so competitive that it is no longer possible for the federal government to demand mainland minimum-wage rates for American Samoa without causing the collapse of our economy and making us welfare wards of the federal government," Mr. Faleomavaega said.