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Looking at impacts of new federal minimum wage

By Fili Sagapolutele PAGO PAGO, American Samoa, (Samoa News, August 17, 2009) - Villages will be included in the broad study of the impact of the minimum wage hikes in American Samoa conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, whose three-member team arrived Thursday night.

Governor Togiola Tulafono said on his weekend radio program the wage study is very important to the territory as it faces difficult times with the closure of COS Samoa Packing at the end of September, while the government continues to attract new business to the territory.

He said discussions are ongoing with possible companies interested in American Samoa, but could not disclose further information, based on request from those same companies.

Togiola said the GAO team will be in the territory for about two weeks and the study will be taken out to the villages. In past federal studies, it usually focused on private sector and others in government, with no input from villagers, he said.

Togiola said he was informed by Marissa Jones (who is leading the team), that they will visit villages to find out exactly how individuals feel about the minimum wage, the cost of living and how they are coping with these issues during these challenging times of the local economy.

He said public input will be part of the study when it’s submitted to Congress, which has mandated the GAO to provide the first report no later than April 15, 2010.

Togiola called for full participation of local residents in the GAO study, saying that the results will play a critical role in future minimum wage increases as mandated by federal law.

David Robinson, president of the Chamber of Commerce, told Samoa News the team now in the territory are the same GAO officials who met with the governor and the American Samoa delegation while in Washington D.C. last month. He said village meetings were one of the issues the governor stressed to the GAO to ensure a "broad sector" of the community is reached.

"A broad community input from churches, matais, village mayors, cannery workers and every person in the territory is a necessity to ensure that information gathered by GAO are facts, not fiction," said Robinson. "If our people are struggling to make ends meet -- GAO should find out why. If inflation is high -- GAO should find the reasons."

"The governor as well as our local leaders want GAO to be fully armed with the right information for their report, not just bits and pieces," said Robinson.

As part of the village outreach, the GAO team met Friday with Secretary of Samoan Affairs Tufele Li’amatua. The team also met Friday with the Fono leadership and officials of the American Samoa Community College, said Robinson.

There is no confirmation yet as to when the GAO will start visiting villages. There is also the possibility of public forums, allowing the public to express opinions on the minimum wage increases.

Today, the team is scheduled to meet with the Commerce Department Statistical Division -- which is currently conducting its own separate survey (the quarterly business survey) with results to be presented to the GAO, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.

The governor’s Economic Advisory Council, Human Resources Department and the Treasury Department are also on the schedule today for a visit by the GAO, who will also be visiting other departments and agencies throughout the rest of the week.

Information the team will gather include wages, labor and employment, private sector productivity such as export levels and tax revenues, private sector development initiatives, social assistance programs that collect information on income and/or poverty and immigration and tourism.

Togiola also briefed his radio audience on his Washington D.C. trip, in which the minimum wage petition was presented to a senior official to President Barack Obama (See tomorrow’s paper for further details).

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