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A new wave of workers: employees from Mexico and western United States are closing the labor gap at Maui Pineapple Company.

The labor crunch on Maui is old news. But as employees continue to be in short supply, employers are trying a variety of approaches to woo workers. In some cases this has meant returning to an historic solution: bringing in employees from far-flung geographic areas. Last March, Maui Pineapple Co. welcomed a group of agricultural workers from Mexico--32 men, all with work visas, who came to tend the pineapple fields and live in company dormitories.

Drawn to Maui by the lack of work in Mexico and the western United States, the men also were attracted by the comparatively higher wages offered in Hawaii--approximately $8 an hour as compared with about $4 an hour on the mainland. But their decision to travel to the islands was not made lightly; several of the men left behind wives and children, and most spoke only rudimentary English. For some, the distance between home and Hawaii proved too great, and they left within a few months. But others have stayed, or left and returned. One man--offered a promotion by the company--brought his wife and two children to permanently live on Maui.

Aiding the company in its work with the mainland employees is Maui Economic Opportunity, a 25-year-old social services agency based in Kahului that has a federal grant to assist migrant and seasonal farm workers. At first, MEO concentrated on helping the newly arrived mainland employees, coordinating everything from their work permits to their English as a Second Language classes. In the spring of last year, however, after a meeting with colleagues running similar agencies in the western United States, MEO Executive Director Gladys Baisa began to think she could do more. "I heard my peers say, 'We can train people, but we don't have jobs,'" says Baisa. "And I was the only one saying, 'We have a different problem. We have a lot of jobs and no people.'"

Baisa had a chance to match jobs with people not long after that, when officials from Maui Pineapple Co. asked her if MEO could help recruit women to work in the cannery from August to December. Agencies in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah joined with MEO to form a group--dubbed the Rocky Mountain HI Coalition--to provide the company with mainland workers.

Last August was the first test of the coalition: 50 women from six western states arrived on Maui to begin a four-month stint in the Maui Pineapple Co. cannery. As it had with their male counterparts, distance claimed some employees, especially young mothers separated from small children. But the company replaced those who left, and 50 women completed the first program. A second group of 30 mainland women came to Maui in March for an eight-month stint in the cannery; among them were 10 women who had been in the original group.

As Gladys Baisa sees it, the new employees represent one more stage in the peopling of Hawaii with workers from different lands. Says Baisa, "I am a descendent of an immigrant worker. My grandfather came to Maui in the late 1800s from the Azores in Portugal, as a contract worker for the sugar plantation. My gradmother also came. I see this cycle happening again with this new group, and I think, 'We are really on the cutting edge of history.'"

Skip McDonnell, employment programs administrator for Maui Pineapple, has been pleased with the results--in part because the desire of some mainland workers to move permanently to jobs in Maui squares with his long-term goal of building up the company's permanent work force. "We've been able to provide jobs for people, and we've been able to get our job done," says McDonnell. "And that's what it should be; it should be win-win."

On the following pages, three people involved in this unique program -- McDonnell;Lena Ortega, an employee from Arizona; and Juan Camacho, a worker from Mexico--tell their stories in their own words.
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Author:Hooper, Susan
Publication:Hawaii Business
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:That's amore! Three Italians and an Italian-at-heart have blended their love of food and the gentrification of Upcountry Maui into an upscale eatery.
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