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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 2, 2006

Del Monte's news of closure stuns, upsets workers

 •  Del Monte quitting pineapple here

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Lino Tolentino, 69, a Del Monte employee of 25 years, sits dazed after a meeting held to announce that the Kunia plantation would be closing in 2008. Tolentino wonders how his family will get by.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Field worker Stanley Naur, 38 tries to comprehend the company's news.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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KUNIA CAMP By early yesterday afternoon Del Monte Fresh Produce workers knew something was up after word circulated around camp that there would be a 2:30 p.m. meeting that everyone was supposed to attend.

Driver Andres Felipe, who has been with the company for nearly three decades, was startled to see workers leaving the fields in midafternoon and migrating toward the dirt lot outside company headquarters.

"Things are different now than they used to be," Felipe said with a shrug, as if what was about to happen was inevitable. "This management is a different bunch."

Felipe said the company had been selling off its equipment a sure sign that things were about to change.

About 175 workers crowded the end of a lot truck shed as Del Monte general manager Ed Littleton told them that this month's pineapple planting would be the last crop and that the Kunia plantation would close in 2008.

The press was asked to remain outside the headquarters compound while the 20-minute meeting was under way. It ended with a polite smattering of applause, before workers slowly scattered in all directions.

Several said they weren't sure what had just transpired.

"I really don't understand what he told us," said Stanley Naur, 38, a field worker who has been with the company for five years. "I don't speak much English."

Truck driver Lino Tolentino, 69, who has lived at Kunia Camp and worked for Del Monte for a quarter of a century, knew what was said but looked stunned all the same. As he sat on his bicycle next to the camp post office, he pondered his options.

"We are upset, but what can we do?" he asked softly, shaking his head. "If they pull out, we no can do anything. Especially if they're telling us they cannot make money."

Tolentino said he had no idea where he and his family would go if they lost their home.

"That's my problem," he said. "I don't know where we'd go. I'm strong. I'd like to keep working, if possible. If given the privilege, I would like to try to buy my home."

Then, after a pause, he added, "If nobody help us, we may end up homeless."

Juanito Omnes Jr., 12, who shuffled past with a group of friends, tried to make sense of the news that he might soon be leaving the humble plantation home where he has lived with his family all his life.

"There won't be any more pineapples?" he asked.

Another, smaller gathering of about 60 late-shift workers met in the yard at around 3:45 p.m. to hear a second telling of management's announcement. Littleton declined to talk to the press about the company's plans.

Arlene Malasig, 32, of Waialua, whose mother, cousin, aunt and uncle all work at Del Monte, looked on from across the street.

"My cousin called me after the first meeting and said, 'Oh, bad news. It's happened,' " Malasig said, noting that the grapevine has it that new workers may be the first to lose their jobs.

Malasig said her mother, who has been with Del Monte for more than 30 years, and her cousin, who has been with the company for more than five years, should be relatively secure in their employment in the short run. But she worried that her aunt and uncle, who have worked there about a year and live in the camp, may be laid off soon.

"I'm thinking they're probably going to be the first to go," Malasig said. "They still will probably be able to live here for a while. But, of course, they'll be unemployed."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.