Samoa's cannery facing labor crisis; stimulus funds cause people to quit jobs


Starkist employees outside the factory in Pago Pago. Photo courtesy of Talenei

Pago-Pago -- StarKist Samoa is scrambling to fill vacancies in the factory, targeting foreign workers who are already on island due to the challenge of convincing locals to return to work.


Tuna canning is one of American Samoa’s major industries and Starkist is one of the primary job providers in the private sector.


"But our business is dealing with the employment shortage, which is impacting our ability to keep up with global demand," Michelle Faist, vice president of StarKist Co., said in an interview with Talanei News.


The Talanei said the cannery faces a decline in employee numbers at the start of every year when cannery employees, predominantly from Samoa, return from their Christmas and New Year break and also when taxes are filed and refund checks are issued.


At the start of 2021, with border closures preventing cannery workers from making their usual trip to Samoa for the holidays, StarKist had an even more challenging time maintaining workforce numbers at a steady level.


“This year has been more challenging due to additional Covid benefits. We are aware that we are not the only company or government entity in American Samoa facing attendance problems," Talalenie quoted Faist as saying.


Last year, American Samoa received $16.2 million from the U.S. Department of Labor for the pandemic unemployment assistance under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act.

The new stimulus package — the American Rescue Plan Act — extends the PUA term and the FPUC benefit of $300 beginning March 14 through the week ending Sept. 4, 2021. The PUA program applies to U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals and green card holders.

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At meetings last month, StarKist proposed a local guest worker program involving those already on island with problematic Immigration statuses that StarKist can assist if the government allowed it.


StarKist officials met with Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga and Lt. Governor Talauega Eleasalo Ale and their team during which the government gave the cannery options.


“The program we are working to implement right now deals with foreign nationals with expired P5 ID cards. After they get their necessary police and hospital clearances, their cases will be reviewed by the Immigration Board and if approved for renewal, it would be on the condition that they work for StarKist Samoa,” Faist told KHJ News.


Talanei News reported that Starkist has begun airing ads for employees in several languages in an effort to get the labor it needs.

In addition to Samoan and English announcements, the cannery is asking for workers in Tongan, Fijian and Filipino.

The ads tell potential hires that if their immigration IDs have expired the Immigration Office will work with them to renew their IDs on condition that they agree to work for StarKist.

Cannery officials say the ads are getting a good response from foreign nationals already in the territory, however, not the numbers the cannery needs.

Also being planned is a television program where the hiring effort for foreign nationals with expired IDs will be explained in detail.

Talalanei reported that employees are not showing up for work after receiving stimulus checks and other benefits such as increased food stamp vouchers related to Covid-19.

According to Lt Gov. Talauega Eleasalo Ale, BlueSky, restaurants and stores are experiencing the same situation.


Asked if the proposal would resolve the cannery’s labor shortage, Faist said, “We are hopeful that the program – and the number of individuals eligible under it – will improve our headcount. Under the program, the applicants will benefit because their immigration statuses will be current so they can reside in American Samoa legally and they will be able to work.” (Talanei)


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