Looking for leadership on labour “mobility”?
Don’t look south or west.
In either of those directions you’ll find token amounts.
There is New Zealand under its seasonal worker scheme, which looks to have reached successful levels only when compared with the pitiful numbers achieved by Australia.
No, for leadership on access to labour markets, Samoa must look eastwards - immediate east, as in the country’s next door neighbour and long lost twin, “American” Samoa.
There, Starkist Samoa employs thousands of people, many of them not from the territory itself but from here, the independent state of Samoa.
This week the cannery is celebrating its 50th anniversary, an event marking what Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga describes as their “shift to a modern economy.”
Moliga told local newspaper Samoa News that Starkist is now the “ the single largest producing tuna cannery in the world.”
The vast bulk of its output goes to the United States, some 6,000 containers annually, or around 120,000 tons of tuna. Another 500 containers go to Australia and South East Asia.
What do those figures mean here in Samoa?
April statistics from the Central Bank Samoa show that American Samoa is the third largest source of visitors to this country, after New Zealand and Australia, bringing in $3.2 million for April alone.
Remittances added another $1.3 million tala.
That the cannery drives the economy of American Samoa is undoubted.
What may get taken for granted however is the freedom that many Samoans enjoy to access that economy, travelling between the two halves of what was once one culture.
That freedom seems to be reciprocated.
American Samoans can also be found here, raising children and working jobs, following partners and family links, almost as if colonial borders that divide western and eastern Samoa never existed.
And that, really, is how it should be.
Yet trade talks over the last few years give the appearance that New Zealand and Australia are on the opposite side of the planet, not right next door.
Both countries have rejected calls from island countries to balance free trade talks with free access opportunities.
How far apart are we on this issue?
Samoans who are repeat visitors to New Zealand and Australia often feel like they are from another planet altogether when they are forced to answer the same questions, over and over, for visa applications they need, again and again.
New Zealand, in particular, needs to revisit what is said to be a “unique” treaty of “friendship” and stop giving the cold fish treatment to people who have no intention, and never will, of overstaying, anywhere.
There are also the long standing cultural ties between two Polynesian countries. Perhaps New Zealand immigration and trade officials could pay a visit to American Samoa and see what useful lessons could be learned.
To be fair, of course, New Zealand and Australia are already much larger sources of assistance than America, through official aid channels.
Aid, tourism, remittances - along with food, consultants and other imports - come mostly from those two countries.
And yet there remains a yearning for greater equality.
Over the decades, Samoa has had to get over its distaste for begging and appears to have done so, to the point where the country is now getting quite good at it - on both the street level and the diplomatic level.
Samoa does not want to beg.
It wants to compete.
That there is natural talent to compete can easily be seen in our sports teams, especially the rugby, and the carefulness which much bigger countries avoid meeting Manu Samoa on home ground.
Yes, some Samoans have trouble adjusting to life in modern economies overseas. Some drink too much to bury their culture shock, fail to find work, rob, steal, beat their children, rape, murder and grab other headlines for various reasons.
Such failures are not limited to Samoans however.
Nor can all problems be blamed on culture shock. A more accurate diagnosis might be future shock, where there are rising levels of alienation and depression among populations expected to provide endlessly increasing levels of productivity.
Similar challenges face American Samoa, where the desire to raise minimum wages in the territory next door to US levels is facing profit pressure from a cannery that may in future close down and relocate somewhere else, where wages are lower.
It’s complicated, sure.
What seems to be simple is that if New Zealand and Australia want to open trade markets in the region, they will have to do better addressing island demands for open labour markets.
Simpler still may be the notion that both sides have come up with bargaining positions that neither want to agree to - we’ve all got something none of us want to give.
If that’s the case, then it seems like an opportunity to recreate accomplishments like the world’s largest tuna cannery risk getting lost.