Saturday, January 13, 2007

Minimum Wage, Maximum Hypocrisy

The federal minimum wage bill exposes the maximum hypocrisy of those who claim that such a law helps the working poor. While Congress intends to impose a higher wage floor in the Northern Mariana Islands, Democrats have made a back room deal to ensure it will stay clear of American Samoa . By doing so, they have acknowledged that using the force of law to raise wages destroys the jobs for those who need them the most.

In American Samoa , the tuna cannery may indeed “rule the roost” as the Washington Post likes to imply. The fact is that our canneries have a choice just as every American family has when they go out shopping. The tuna industry doesn’t have to lobby anybody to keep wages at a certain level; they are free to shop around for laborers in the global economy where there are workers who are willing to work at lower prices. Our labor force is in direct competition with a highly competitive market!

Because our tuna industry is our largest employer, the issues Republicans raise concerning any hike in the federal minimum wage become very prominent in our territory. Other states and territories have other industries to cover up the resulting loss of jobs from the lower rung of the economic ladder whenever the minimum wage rises. But for us, the last rung of that damn ladder employs approximately 5000 of our people.

It’s an undeniable fact that raising the minimum wage causes a lost of jobs that employ the very people self-righteous politicians claim to help. While we need more pay in order to afford healthcare and other rising costs, for our people, we just need jobs period! A low paying job beats no job any day.

Our territory is isolated. The high costs associated with being far away from the rest of the world is what’s keeping us a one-industry economy. If the US Congress wants to help us down here, then they should exempt us from US Cabotage laws to allow more competition in the air transport market to help lower transportation costs. They could also help us institute local policies that encourage private sector growth and diversification (low taxes, low regulation and zero government competition) and improve our people’s skills and our children’s education.

Moreover, a higher minimum wage does nothing to protect immigrants from abusive employers. In fact, a higher minimum wage will more than likely push them into the underground economy and engage them in illegal and dangerous activities just so they can put food on the table. Labor abuses are more likely a result of immigration laws that discourage such persons from coming to the local government for help and protection. It’s the same story in American Samoa and rest of America as well.

We need higher wages in Samoa . But higher wages will come from growth and diversification of our private sector and improvement of our people’s skills. That will take time, but more importantly, courage from our local politicians to implement policies that will make such things happen. In the meantime, we need to encourage Congressman Faleomavaega to stand up to the ideologues in his party who would cause the departure of our jobs just so they can inject their ideology into the national agenda.

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