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Free Trade Agreements, Are They Good For American Businesses?

Pacific Magazine, Hawaii

WASHINGTON,D.C: Free Trade Agreements, Are They Good For American Businesses?

25 July 2006

(Faleomavaega PR) - The U.S. House International Relations Committee held a hearing on Thursday July 20, 2006 on Asian Free Trade Agreements and questioned if they are good for American businesses and American workers, according to American Samoa Congressman Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin.

Testifying at the hearing was Ambassador Karan K. Bhatia, the Deputy United States Trade Representative.

Congressman Faleomavaega issued the following statement after the hearing:

“I was pleased that Chairman Hyde and Ranking Member Lantos held a hearing on this important subject and I am pleased that I had an opportunity to once more make sure American Samoa is on the radar screen as these agreements are negotiated by the Administration.

“Unlike the Andean Trade Preference Act which had input from Congress, the Bush Administration has a broad policy of pursuing regional and bilateral trade initiatives and Congress is given no power to amend these agreements. Congress is only allowed to vote yes or no in support or opposition.”

“For American Samoa, this means we have to work directly with the US Trade Representative (USTR) and the International Trade Commission (ITC) to make sure our needs are known and our interests are protected, and this is what I have been doing for the past six years. As a result, the USTR and the ITC are very much aware of American Samoa’s dependency on the US tuna fishing and processing industries. In fact, both the USTR and ITC have worked closely with my office and our canneries in coming up with compromises that we can live with for now.

“However, I would prefer that tuna be taken off the table in trade discussions but, as trade agreements go, all products are up for consideration. This is why at last week’s hearing I once again emphasized that American Samoa’s private sector economy is more than 80% dependent, directly and indirectly, on the US tuna fishing and processing industries. Two US canneries, Star Kist and Chicken of the Sea, employ more than 5,150 people or 74 percent of the workforce.

“Given the devastating consequences which could result if one or both of our canneries were to depart or downsize, I continue to be concerned by the Administration’s decision to negotiate free trade agreements that place American workers at risk. Quite frankly, American Samoa cannot compete against labor rates of 60 cents an hour for cannery workers in Thailand, the Philippines, or even the Andean countries. Yet, cannery workers in American Samoa are paid considerably less than the US minimum wage rate receiving only $3.60 per hour to clean and pack tuna for Star Kist and Chicken of the Sea.

“For years, I have fought for increased wages for American Samoa’s cannery workers and, to this day, it sickens me that women who toil day in and day out cleaning fish for 20 years only receive a pension of about $100 per month when they retire from our canneries which are among the largest tuna canneries in the world. In part, I blame Free Trade Agreements.

“I am not an economist but I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why our wages and pensions are suppressed and why American workers are losing their jobs. We end up with such high trade deficits not only with our Asian partners but also with our European partners and our friends in Mexico and South and Central America. As a result of NAFTA, more than 500,000 American workers have lost their jobs in the textile industry and this is just one example of trade policies gone wrong.

“While I believe in trade, I believe trade should be fair. And for anyone to contend that Thailand and other ASEAN member nations have been disadvantaged as a result of the Andean Trade Preference Act, I would like to set the record straight and say that ASEAN nations are the largest foreign suppliers of tuna to the U.S. market and Thailand supplies the U.S. with more tuna than any other foreign nation.

“Thankfully, the Thailand Free Trade Agreements are stalled as a result of political uncertainties including the resignation of Thailand’s lead negotiator and demonstrations by ten thousand people who have disrupted the talks. As a result of the hearing held by the House International Relations Committee, I am hopeful that the negotiations will continue to be placed on hold and, more importantly, I hope the Bush Administration will use this time to really question whether Free Trade Agreements are good for the USA.

“I say these agreements are not good for our workers and we need a new direction for America. ASG also needs to act on the recommendations of the American Samoa Economic Development Study Commission and submit an economic development proposal to the US Department of the Interior and subsequently to the US Congress for consideration. To help our local government in this process, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt approved to fund my request in 1999 at an amount of $600,000 to establish an American Samoa Economic Development Study Commission. This was the first time during our Territory’s 106-year relationship with the U.S. that a Commission of this nature was established. This historic study took two years to complete and, in FY 2000, the Commission submitted its report to the Secretary of the Interior and to the responsible Committees in Congress including the House Resources Committee and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“Congress now awaits ASG’s and the Department of the Interior’s recommendations and I am very concerned that five years have now past and ASG has not taken the initiative to consult with the DOI about this matter. While I appreciate that the Governor has his own economic agenda, I do not know what the Fono’s agenda is nor do I know what the priorities of ASG and the DOI may be. But until we have a comprehensive economic plan from ASG through the DOI, Congress will not take any action on any plans for American Samoa’s economic future.

“As I have stated before, like every other State and Territory, American Samoa is caught up in a global economy. Tariff rates are being reduced world-wide not just on tuna but on every commodity imaginable and our local government must prepare for the day when our canneries may reduce their workforce or move elsewhere. Now that the Thailand Free Trade Agreement negotiations are stalled, I hope ASG will take this opportunity to put a plan in place. In the meantime, I will do everything I can to make sure our interests are protected,” Congressman Faleomavaega concluded.