”’This is reprinted from the Saturday, January 27, 2007 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Page A8”’
HONOLULU — Nancy Pelosi led the effort in the U.S. House during her first week as speaker to increase the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour from $5.15. In the process she ensured that American Samoa, a U.S. territory, is exempt from the wage hike, but did not exempt the Marianas Islands. The distinction is not unimportant.
StarKist and Del Monte, two big fish- and tuna-canning companies with packing plants in American Samoa, are headquartered in California, the former in Ms. Pelosi’s San Francisco district. These companies pay a federal minimum wage of $3.26 per hour, or what will be $4 per hour less than what Ms. Pelosi is requiring American businesses on American soil to pay workers. But American Samoa Delegate Eni Faleomavaega argued that raising the minimum wage “would devastate the local tuna industry.” Could that not also be the case elsewhere in the country?
In any event, despite strident criticism of Ms. Pelosi for the exemption and her avowal “to make sure that all of the territories have to comply with U.S. law on the minimum wage,” it still carried over into the final legislation.
But the exemption for American Samoa is more curious still. Even the U.S. Department of Labor has noted the government’s corruption, citing several cases of waste and fraud. Hawaii U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo says there is a push for federal law enforcement to take a more active role on that Pacific island. And Hawaii’s FBI plans to open an office there to keep a closer watch.
What is even more ironic about Ms. Pelosi’s behavior is that the region she is attempting to exempt has historically treated its workers poorly, with many instances of human rights abuses, and paid them pittances, besides.
Look no further than the story of Kil Soo Lee. In 1998, the Korean national incorporated the Daewoosa garment factory with the help of Togiola Tulafono, then lieutenant governor. (Mr. Tulafono is now governor.) Mr. Lee kept roughly 300 women from Vietnam as slaves; he was convicted in 2003 on 14 counts, including extortion, money laundering, conspiring to violate the civil rights of others and holding workers to a condition of involuntary servitude. Federal prosecutors called the Daewoosa case the biggest “modern-day slavery” case in U.S. history. Mr. Lee had devastated hundreds of young girls’ lives — and he had done so with the help of prominent Samoan government officials.
I met Mr. Lee in January 2001, flying from Hawaii to American Samoa with a Vietnamese translator to help expose him, his “garment factory” and the government who embraced him. Dozens of young women in the factory told me they paid $5,000 upfront to their government to secure a three-year contract to sew designer clothes for $408 per month. They were promised spacious living quarters with a swimming pool, nutritious meals three times daily and substantial wages. When they arrived, the accommodations crammed 36 people to a poorly ventilated, humid hallway, lined by tiny bunk beds with half-inch mattresses. Bath facilities offered no privacy and broken toilets; the swimming pool was filled with garbage and putrid green slime.
But poor living conditions wasn’t all. They were fed a rice and cabbage gruel. They were slapped and pinched by guards for minor offenses such as missing a curfew or working too slowly. Female workers were subject to the whims of Mr. Lee, some of them sexual. He forced them to clip and manicure his toenails, to watch them shower, and to “lay” beside them on their bunks. The workers often weren’t paid sometimes for months, despite the National Labor Committee reporting Daewoosa’s sales at $8 million in 1999. They could not leave the island, as Mr. Lee had seized their passports.
Mr. Lee received special treatment from the government, including tax exemptions and a waived bond requirement — possibly because of his connection to then-Lt. Gov. Tulafono, who was hired to incorporate Daewoosa while Mr. Tulafono’s wife served for two years on the company board. The Vietnamese workers told me that when police were called to investigate a beating, they walked away with clothes, not a report or an arrest.
Ngyen Thi Nga and Dung Thi Kim Vu sought help from attorneys Virginia Sudbury and Christa Tzu-hsiu Lin, who took their case in 2001 pro bono. Weeks later, both whistleblowers allegedly drowned in rough seas off Pago Pago, although their bodies were never found. As new witnesses stepped forward, Mr. Lee became more volatile. He deported, with the cooperation of the Vietnamese and Samoan governments, nine primary witnesses and demanded the arrest of four others. Tensions were high when Samoan guards attacked the Vietnamese workers on Nov. 28, 2000. Quyen Truong, 21, was severely beaten with a club, stabbed in the eye and blinded.
Associate Justice of the High Court of American Samoa Lyle Richmond presided over the five-week civil trial in 2001, which I attended. Mr. Richmond ordered Mr. Lee to refund back wages, but he did not.
After national media exposure, Mr. Lee was arrested by federal agents, deported from American Samoa to Hawaii on March 23, 2001, and held behind bars without bond. The indictment claimed Mr. Lee willfully held people in involuntary servitude from Feb. 9, 1999, to December 2000, and forced them to work without pay under threats of serious harm and physical restraint. In February 2003, after a four-month trial, Mr. Lee was found guilty.
Mr. Lee appealed. He argued that the United States did not have jurisdiction in American Samoa. The court disagreed and on Dec. 27, 2006, Mr. Lee lost his appeal.
Ms. Pelosi campaigned heavily for office and her leadership position on a promise of honest government. Her party supposedly advocates for the blue-collar workers. But is it honest to exempt American Samoa from the minimum wage requirement, especially with the documented human-rights abuses? Is it “advocating for the workers” to ensure that their pay is kept considerably lower than their counterparts in the U.S.?
In addition to House speaker, Ms. Pelosi can add “ethically challenged” to her resume.
”’Ms. Zimmerman is president of Hawaii Reporter, a Honolulu-based newspaper.”’