Pacific Scoop

Closing of key American Samoa cannery opens powder-keg of problems

Star Kist cannery ... surviving, but downsizing. Photo:

Star Kist cannery ... surviving, but downsizing. Photo:

Opinion – By Tupuola Terry Tavita in Apia

It is highly unlikely that there are any in Samoa who do not have relatives in neighbouring American Samoa.

Since the Second World War – and especially since the 1950s with the opening of the canneries in Pago Pago –  thousands from this side of the Aleipata Strait have emigrated to the Territory. The majority from the rural areas.

Hundreds have gained permanent residence status since, hundreds more have gone over on short-term permits. Many have overstayed.

Though figures are sketchy, it is safe to assume that a sizeable portion of the 60,000 or so residents in the Territory comprise of those originally from here and their offspring, many of whom are now American Samoa nationals.

Like emigration to New Zealand, American Samoa and its canneries has served not only as a population control outlet for Samoa but also as an employment safety valve.

It has worked to our favour.

At the price of losing our ablest people, the trade-off is the millions in remittances sent over to prop up families, communities and of course, the churches in Samoa. Remittances, by the way, can also be argued to be a double-edged sword.

As many queue up at the transfer centers to receive their monthly remittance staple, the incentive to cultivate the land has become less pressing. For many families, remittances have become their main source of income.

Also, successive governments have never really had to deal with the pressing issue of finding employment for the thousands of school leavers we churn out each year.

As long as the doorway to New Zealand is relatively accessible and as long as the canneries in Pago Pago remained open and pursuing cheap labour, we could postpone the honest solving of a basic problem, in its full brunt.

And the safety valve can also be argued to be a political one.

Unemployment breeds dissent and the ablest-but-unemployed could have easily formed a large discontented group who perhaps would have since agitated for knee-jerk economic, political and social reform.

Now that the bigger of the two canneries in Pago Pago is closing shop and the other downsizing its work force, it poses serious concern for our public authorities here.

We will not endeavor to discuss here Governor Togiola Tulafono nor Congressman Faleomavaega’s role, and gambit, in all this. But somebody at Utulei was sleeping at the desk and left the back door open.

Some 85 percent of Samoa Packing’s 4200 work force are reported to be from Samoa while the 300 or so employees at Star Kist, soon to be let go, most likely are also from here.

And not all of them are on the fish processing line. Many are technicians, electricians, engineers and administrators at the canneries.

What are we going to do when they, and their families, start drifting into Apia looking for the non-existent blue and white colour jobs? This on top of the thousands others coming out of our classrooms and looking for jobs every year, government has to prioritize.

Notwithstanding, such a drift poses a powder-keg of problems such as conflict over land ownership, conflict over leadership, juvenile delinquency, poverty, over crowdedness, etc. Are our health, education and public support systems capable of absorbing these returning migrants?

Perhaps it will bring back the fundamental question that we’ve always avoided through the years. The one that will come back to haunt us:

“Why have so many of our relatives migrated?”

Tupuola Terry Tavita is editor of the Samoan government newspaper Savali and this is an editorial from the latest edition.

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