Tiaoalii Tupai, left, and Sione Sione, right, with their two children. Both parents have come from American Samoa to Sanpete County to work at Norbest. Sione is like many Samoans: his first and last name are the same.

 

Newcomers are U.S. citizens

Workers from Samoa getting along well, but aide concerned about stereotyping

 

By Suzanne Dean

Publisher

Oct. 6, 2017

 

MORONI—About 90 residents of American Samoa, ranging in age from 18 to 50, have moved to Sanpete County since July to take jobs at the Norbest processing plant in Moroni.

On the whole, they are getting along very well, says Pam VanDinklage, a Samoan who grew up in California and Utah, and then returned to Samoa. Norbest hired her out of Samoa as a human resources generalist to work her fellow Samoans.

But there have been a few wrinkles as the Samoans have sought to adjust. VanDinklage says she went to Wal-Mart a couple of times. The store accepted her driver’s license with no questions.

But on her third visit, the clerk wouldn’t honor the license, even though, since American Samoa is a U.S. territory, the license has the same standing as a driver’s license from any continental state. “I felt like I was some kind of alien who needed some kind of special ID,” she says.

She says she has picked up vibes that some Sanpete County residents are suspicious of the Samoan workers because of past experiences with other Polynesians, possibly youth who have come to Ephraim to attend Snow College.

“There’s some stereotyping going on,” she says. “They (local residents) have got to know that people in any culture are not all the same. You can’t just label them.”

VanDinklage is anxious for Sanpete County residents to get to know the workers better, to understand their legal status, and to appreciate their reasons for leaving their families to come to work in the states.

The overriding motivation for the workers, she says, economic opportunity. The minimum wage in Samoa is about $5 per hour. The typical pay for a full-time worker is about $400 per month. A significant share of families on the island live in poverty.

“We are so grateful for this opportunity,” she says. “It has given each of us the opportunity to send some financial assistance” to families back home who need it.

One worker in the group is a 50-year-old woman who left six children behind because the thing the family needed most was money.

“I’ve seen some of the men in tears,” VanDinklage says. “They miss their families. But they’re doing it to help their families.”

She says a typical worker who gets a $1,000 paycheck from Norbest keeps $100 and sends $900 back to Samoa.

According to VanDinklage, as the labor shortage at Norbest got more severe last year, the company started looking to Guam, Puerto Rico and Samoa, all U.S. territories whose residents are American citizens.

As citizens, she says, territorial residents are as free to travel to the continental United States as residents of the 50 states are to travel from state to state. American Samoans do not need work permits or visas.

“We are all U.S. nationals, so we don’t need any of those special cards,” VanDinklage says.

While the dominant language on the island is Samoan, English is used in the schools, and all of the workers are bilingual to some degree or other. The young adults are fluent in English.

Until late in 2016, there were two tuna processing plants on the American Samoan island, one owned by Starkist and another, called Samoa Tuna, owned by Tri-Marine International based in Bellevue, Washington.

In December, Samoa Tuna closed and laid off 1,000 workers. Norbest saw an opportunity to hire workers with experience in meat processing. The company started recruiting on the island and was flooded with applications.

Beginning on June 30, about 50 workers started arriving in Sanpete County in groups of 10-12. Norbest paid their travel expenses and located housing for them.

Some of the housing was in privately owned student complexes in Ephraim that had vacancies, such as Badger Den and Maple Cove. The company also leased some single family homes in Ephraim and Moroni.

“We came, and there were already houses for us to stay in,” VanDinklage says. “The company has helped the workers so much.”

For the Samoans, some of whom were accustomed to sleeping on the floor, the housing was tantamount to a luxury hotel. One Norbest official wasn’t happy with the shape some of the housing was in and promised to get something done about it promptly. But one of the workers said, “This is the best. I have a bed.”

VanDinklage said Norbest was “very impressed with the hard work and skills” displayed by the first group of 50. So they recruited more. In fact, the company is continuing to bring Samoans to Sanpete County.

One of the main ways the Samoans have interacted with the larger community has been through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. About one-third of the 90 workers who have arrived so far are LDS. Some of the non-LDS workers are attending meetings with their fellow Samoans.

VanDinklage says she hopes to work with local LDS leaders to establish a Samoan branch in the county.

The workers have one-year contracts. What happens when the contracts are up hasn’t been determined.

“A lot don’t want to go back,” VanDinklage says. “I’m hoping that they can bring their families here.”

After all, she says, some of the big Samoan kids “could be powerhouses for the Manti Templars football team.”