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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 3, 2006

Plantation life fades away

Del Monte photo gallery

By Dan Nakaso and Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writers

Bob Bevacqua was laid off last month as a Del Monte field superintendent. He says he is "the first casualty" of the massive layoffs that are to come when Del Monte closes its Kunia plantation. He lives in the company-subsidized housing and may have to look for another home.

Photos by DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Del Monte hasn't decided what will happen to its Kunia village housing.

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If developer Peter Savio's idea becomes reality, pineapple workers who live in plantation housing at Kunia Camp will not be thrown into O'ahu's pricey real estate market when Del Monte Fresh Produce pulls out of the Islands.

Savio has been working for the past year to allow other Del Monte workers to buy 63 plantation homes at nearby Poamoho Camp at about one-third market price. Yesterday, Savio said he is putting together a nearly identical plan for the Del Monte workers at Kunia Camp in Central O'ahu who would otherwise likely lose their homes along with their jobs.

Del Monte workers who live in Kunia Camp's 70 to 90 plantation homes pay $200 to $300 in monthly rent, Savio said.

He estimated the homes are worth $150,000 to $200,000. According to Savio's plan, Del Monte pineapple workers would be able to buy the homes and land for $50,000, with no money down.

Entry-level plantation laborers, replanters, weeders, yard workers and plant employees earn $10.95 per hour. The highest-paid union workers top-scale lead electricians and lead machinists make $19.65 hourly, according to ILWU Local 142. The union represents about 700 pineapple workers who will lose their jobs when Del Monte shuts down its Hawai'i operations after December 2008.

"Four hundred to 500 people or 70 to 80 families will have to find affordable housing," Savio said. "These are not the kind of people who can afford to pay $2,000 a month rent. And they're going to be unemployed relatively soon.

"My goal is to save the camp because on top of all of their anxiety, being homeless is another huge fear."

POSSIBILITIES

Savio's effort was one of the bright spots yesterday for workers since Del Monte notified them Wednesday that it will shutter its Hawai'i operations after more than a century of growing pineapples on O'ahu.

"We have worked with Peter and he has made that a reality at Poamoho," said Fred Galdones, president of ILWU Local 142. "It takes away one worry for them. If they have to look for both a job and a roof over their head, it just doubles the depression and the trauma."

Union leaders also were buoyed by interest from Maui Land & Pineapple in possibly acquiring the land from Campbell Estate.

"Obviously, it's great farm land," said Brian Nishida, president and CEO of Maui Land & Pineapple's subsidiary, Maui Pineapple Co., Hawai'i's largest pineapple producer. Nishida, who used to run the Del Monte operation on O'ahu as its general manager, added, "We've got some folks on staff who understand the land there, the micro-climates, soil conditions, the availability of water."

Nishida noted that Maui Land & Pineapple would like to see the plantation maintained for agriculture.

"There are a lot of possibilities. It would be a shame to have it all turn to dust. The announcement is obviously sudden by Del Monte, so there would need to be a lot of dialogue," he said.

Nishida emphasized that Maui Land & Pineapple's interest was preliminary and he did not want to speculate about what it might mean for Del Monte workers. And he did not want to restrict his firm's interest to pineapple.

"I wouldn't want to say pineapple, I'd say farming in general," Nishida said. "The bottom line is we're big supporters of agriculture. We've demonstrated that we want to build a diversified ag business in Hawai'i. From a community perspective, people want to see green open space. From the perspective of keeping that great farm land in agriculture, we're behind that."

Landowner Campbell Estate, which is trying to sell the land in separate parcels, has yet to speak with Maui Land & Pineapple about possibly selling it the land.

"We have not talked to them, but we would be very happy to talk to them," said estate spokeswoman Theresia McMurdo.

Savio said Campbell Estate and camp owner Del Monte are both interested in letting Savio's Hawaiian Island Development arrange for plantation workers to buy their homes. "Right now, we are working with the ILWU, Del Monte and elected officials to come up with a solution with regard to Kunia Camp," McMurdo said.

Del Monte officials in Coral Gables, Fla., did not return telephone calls yesterday.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Del Monte warehouse worker Marjorie Omnes, 26, who lives with her family at Kunia Camp, said she had no idea where she'll live or work when the company leaves. "I have no clue if I'll have to move," Omnes said.

Omnes, who has worked for Del Monte for five years, said she may need five more years with the company to be eligible for separation pay.

"I'm kind of worried about it," Omnes said. "Right now, I'm trying to find another job."

Nick Tarinay, 30, an overhead irrigation worker, said he likely qualifies for separation pay, but that it will do little to ease the shock of Del Monte's announcement. "People are worried about losing their jobs," he said.

Bob Bevacqua, a former Del Monte agricultural operations superintendent, said he was laid off last month.

"I was the first casualty," said Bevacqua, as he sat in the front room of the plantation home where he has lived for the past four years. "They told me the company was experiencing financial problems and a difficult future. And for that reason, they had to trim the payroll.

"It was a punch in the stomach. It was a double whammy for me to lose my income, and now I'm facing (possible) eviction.

"I'll probably be the first person evicted, so whatever plight befalls me, a hundred other households will probably follow."

Bevacqua estimated that about 350 workers and family members live in Kunia Camp, composed largely of homes built during the 1930s and 1950s.

He may pursue a job as an educator, but Bevacqua also is hoping he will have an opportunity to stay at the plantation should a company, such as Maui Land & Pineapple, take over operations.

LAST CROP, FIRST TO GO

Del Monte will plant its final crop on Feb. 19, putting the immediate futures of its planters in jeopardy.

Officials with the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations yesterday said they believe that 35 full- and part-time planters "will be laid off immediately," spokesman James Hardway said.

Labor department officials yesterday also were preparing to send a "rapid response team" to Kunia Camp to begin evaluating workers' skills and job goals. In addition, labor officials were exploring whether Hawai'i will be eligible for federal grants aimed at assisting workers "who are out of work due to foreign competition," Hardway said.

In its announcement, Del Monte cited lower pineapple costs in other parts of the world as one of its reasons for leaving Hawai'i.

THE FILIPINO FACTOR

The impending closure represents the latest jolt to a Hawai'i agricultural industry that has come to rely on Filipino immigrants and workers of Filipino descent, said Dean Alegado, chairman of the University of Hawai'i's ethnic studies department.

"It's part of the phase-out of large-scale agriculture over the last 25, 30 years, especially for pine and sugar," Alegado said.

"The main ethnic group affected has been the Filipino community. Certainly for them there's going to be a big impact. ... They work with people who speak their own language and while that still may be possible in Hawai'i, they may have to find work in hotels, restaurants and the service industry where speaking standard English is more of a requirement. Those cultural characteristics that may not have handicapped them may now become a source of big challenges."

One of the immediate effects of layoffs will be a reduction in the amount of money known as remittance that Filipino workers traditionally send back to family in the Philippines, said Alegado, whose own parents have been wiring cash and ferrying balikbayan boxes filled with goods to the Philippines since the 1950s.

"The remittance to the Philippines will go down," Alegado said. "They're going to have to make their survival here in Hawai'i the main issue."

He worries that some Del Monte workers like some displaced sugar plantation workers before them will suffer depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence as they struggle to adjust to life beyond the plantation. "It's going to create a lot of sacrifices and a lot of disruption," Alegado said.

But with a Hawai'i unemployment rate that continues to lead the nation, employers such as Zippy's yesterday were already interested in talking to pineapple workers about various jobs.

Zippy's needs counter workers, who earn $7.50 per hour; kitchen helpers ($8.50 per hour) and cooks ($9.50 per hour), said Leighton Tanno, Zippy's human resources manager.

"They might be interested in repair and maintenance and we need carpenters and plumbers, too," Tanno said.

When it comes to training workers from other countries, such as the Philippines, Tanno said, "we have lots of Filipino immigrants who can communicate with them and people who speak different dialects. We're willing to train them."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com and Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.