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Life After the Plantation

Del Monte pineapple plantation’s decision to shut down two years early leaves hundreds of workers wondering how to move on.

In our December issue, we published “The Last Plantation,” profiling longtime Del Monte pineapple workers dealing with the planned closure of the company in 2008. As the story went to press, however, Del Monte Fresh Produce abruptly announced that it would shut down its Hawai‘i operations immediately, two years ahead of the originally announced closing date. All of its 500-plus employees will be laid off this month.

The future of Kunia Camp, Hawai‘i’s last pineapple plantation camp, is still unknown. photos: Monte Costa

The company, which has avoided media inquiries since, blamed the move on a drop in its production and lower pineapple prices. Del Monte said in its Nov. 17 statement, “The company will continue to work with all parties involved to meet its obligations and continues to be committed to making every reasonable effort to lessen the impact on all individuals involved.”

Many of the company’s workers are immigrants from the Philippines who’ve worked on the plantation since they arrived in Hawai‘i. About 200 workers live on the plantation in Kunia Camp, renting houses at rates between $176 and $300. In addition to losing their jobs, these workers worry about losing their homes.

“We are just shocked,” says Margarita Gabbac, a 51-year-old harvester who has worked at Del Monte for more than 20 years. “After I hear the news, it’s like one heavy big stone we carrying. Our last day, we cry and we cry. I feel so depressed.”

Other workers weren’t as surprised by the company’s announcement. “I’ve been panicking out since February, so when they announced that they were closing in January instead, it didn’t shock the hell out of me,” says inventory clerk Darlene Palmerton, who represents the third generation in her family to work for the pineapple company.

Truck driver Magdalena Agbayani (left) and harvester luna Margarita Gabbac, two longtime Del Monte employees.

Soon after news of the company’s early closing broke, the state and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents employees, responded—holding classes to help workers apply for jobs; requesting federal funding for additional workforce development classes in other industries, such as construction and health care; and creating “job clubs,” or job-searching support groups.

“With Hawai‘i’s 2.1 percent unemployment rate, obviously they do have a really good opportunity in finding work,” says James Hardway, assistant to the director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. “There is a shortage of laborers in different areas throughout the state. Given there are 56 employers signed up for the Dec. 13 job fair [held specifically for Del Monte workers] shows there is a need for their skills.”

Although there are many interested employers, ILWU social worker Joanne Kealoha worries that workers, many of whom have limited English skills and no high school diplomas, may not find jobs with comparable wages. At Del Monte, full-time workers earn between $11 and $20 an hour.

“Everything is going to be different,” Kealoha says. “It’s not going to be the plantation. It’s not going to be fresh fruit or the production they’re used to. They’re going to have different kinds of jobs in different kinds of environments.”

Some workers have been preparing for Del Monte’s closing since it first announced its plans to close in 2008. Truck driver Juanito Omnes, 56, already had a second job as a driver at the airport. With six children and four grandchildren to support, he and his wife, Myrna, knew he couldn’t risk being unemployed.

“I still looking for better job, but at least I get second job,” he says. “I’m looking for better one right now, maybe apply for a state job.”

After earning her GED last month, Gregoria Padilla is confident about finding a new job.

Gregoria Padilla, a 56-year-old pineapple packer who only completed the sixth grade, also had a backup plan. She was among fewer than 50 employees who enrolled in one of several classes offered to workers for free, including a high school equivalency program, medical assistant’s classes and training in commercial truck driving. Within a few weeks of the company’s announcement in November, she had earned her high school diploma and applied for a job at a clothing store.

“I’m really happy I took that class—it made me more confident,” Padilla says. “If I didn’t do that, I probably wouldn’t even understand how to apply for that job.”

As we went to press last month, workers living at Kunia Camp still didn’t know whether they’d be allowed to stay in their homes. Since Del Monte first announced it would pull out of Hawai‘i, the union has met with representatives from the company as well as landowner James Campbell Co., which leases the 3,000 acres in Kunia to Del Monte. Under the terms of the lease, Del Monte must pay rent through 2008. Campbell plans to sell those agricultural lands once the lease is up.

“Our objective is to find a way to have the people remain in the houses,” says Bert Hatton, Campbell’s executive vice president of Hawai‘i Land Management. “We were hoping we had until 2008, but I think urgency has increased to find a solution as soon as possible, to reduce, if possible, the angst of those who are living there.”

Kunia Camp is the last pineapple plantation camp in Hawai‘i. Del Monte’s closure leaves just two major pineapple producers in the Islands, Maui Land and Pineapple Co. and Dole Foods in Hawai‘i. But the potential loss of Kunia Camp signifies the end of an era in Hawai‘i’s history.

“We don’t really have much of a handle on what Del Monte plans to do,” Kealoha says. “That’s what’s really frustrating. Even when we ask them and they tell us something, we don’t even know if we believe them.”

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,January

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