Tuna industry a global business, requires cooperation between ASG, Dongwon says chairman
Minimum wages, purchase of an African cannery and utility costs were among several issues raised by the local news media during a press conference with Dongwon Industries and StarKist Co. leaders last week at the StarKist Samoa facility.
South Korea-based Dongwon owns StarKist Co. and its local operation StarKist Samoa.
Dongwon chairman Jae-chul Kim and StarKist Co. president and chief executive officer In-Soo Cho were on island last week with top officials of the two companies for a StarKist board meeting as well as meetings with Gov. Togiola Tulafono.
The reason for holding the board meeting here is "to express our gratitude... to the American Samoan people for collaboration, cooperation and support..for our plant, and to make sure that they understand we're here to continue our operations for sustainable operation in the future - for a long time," said Kim, through an interpreter.
Asked for his reaction if the minimum wage hike goes on as scheduled next September, Kim said the company is not in a position to discuss some sort of assumption for possibility in the future.
Congressman Faleomavaega Eni is working on another delay or halting the next 50 cent per hour wage hike with support from the Togiola Administration as well as the local business community and the Fono.
"I have great confidence that Congress will understand the requirement that we need to remain competitive in the worldwide tuna processing industry," Cho told reporters. "Therefore we expect, the extension of delaying in wage increase will take place, next year and the year after that."
However, if the wage hikes go on as scheduled, Cho said that will put the company in a "tough situation".
On his weekend radio program, Togiola says discussions between all parties involved are on-going regarding the minimum wage issue, which was the subject of a U.S. Senate hearing this month, but he was informed Friday by Congress that the hearing is now postponed to February.
Asked if there are any areas of local operations the company would like to strengthen, Cho responded that, "our operations are not isolated cannery operations. It has to have an influx of boats, with a steady flow of competitive priced fish, an unloading facility [and] freezer capacity, which is absolutely necessary."
He said it also needs support services - such as "better restaurants to support crew members that come in, we need to have a better net repair yard, we need to have a better shipyard. And all those things will help us. We can improve all of those, but it has to be a collaborative effort that includes the government and the entire community, which is what American Samoa is doing now."
Asked whether the company is looking at generating its own power, Cho said that StarKist's energy costs are "obviously high" but "there are new technologies, to produce more environmentally friendly, more economic production, for recycling projects... we are doing what we can inside the plant, reutilizing our energy."
"We are also working with ASPA, to upgrade and to improve their generation and there will be a lot of opportunities on that front as well," he said.
StarKist Samoa general manager Brett Butler said the company has had continuous talks with the governor on this and "we hope to get ourselves into a better position."
"...it's very expensive to produce power here. And I think it takes not only a company of our size but the whole community to get involved. We're trying to reduce our costs here in American Samoa," said Butler.
Kim was asked if American Samoa should be worried about the [U.S] $21 million investment deal signed last month by Dongwon for the acquisition of the Societe Nouvelle Conserveries du Senegal (SNCDS), a leading cannery in Senegal.
"This is a Dongwon project, not a StarKist project," said Kim, who attended the signing ceremony. "This project is primarily to establish our fishing grounds and facility [in Africa] to import and export to Europe."
"So the primary objective is to go into Europe, not the American market," he said.
Asked about its new competitor in the territory, Tri Marine International, which is currently setting up a cannery under Samoa Tuna Processors Inc., Cho said Tri Marine has been a "very good friend of ours... and a trading partner with us," and StarKist hopes to continue maintaining this great relationship.
In his closing remarks at the press conference, the Dongwon chairman said, "The tuna industry is a very global business and in that respect, in order to have our business become competitive on a global scale, there has been a collaboration between American Samoa and us. We hope to see continued efforts in making it happen - facilitating collaboration, shared understanding of our goal, and vision."
Kim, who was here some 50 years ago working in the same industry, noted that American Samoa at the time - 50 years ago - and up to now- is still "paradise" and "I believe that quality of life for people here has been upgraded... has been globalized."
The StarKist CEO added to Kim's remarks saying that the Dongwon/StarKist delegation received such a warm welcome during their visit. He said this is his second visit here since taking over the post, and has received an even warmer welcome this time around.
"The collaboration that we (StarKist) have received for decades has been great and we expect that collaboration to continue. And when it requires some action to move forward, take definite steps, we hope that we can make progress toward those goals," he said.