|Indentured Servants in America
By BOB HERBERT NY Times Op-Ed: March 12, 2007
York Times" -- -- A must-read for anyone who
favors an expansion of guest worker programs in the U.S. is a
stunning new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that
details the widespread abuse of highly vulnerable,
poverty-stricken workers in programs that already exist.
The report is titled 'Close
to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States.' It will be formally released today at a
press conference in Washington.
Workers recruited from Mexico, South America, Asia and elsewhere
to work in American hotels and in such labor- intensive
industries as forestry, seafood processing and construction are
often ruthlessly exploited.
They are routinely cheated out of their wages, which are low to
begin with. They are bound like indentured servants to the
middlemen and employers who arrange their work tours in the U.S.
And they are virtual hostages of the American companies that
The law does not allow these 'guests' to change jobs while
they're here. If a particular employer is unscrupulous, as is
very often the case, the worker has little or no recourse.
One of the guest workers profiled in the report was a psychology
student recruited in the Dominican Republic to work at a hotel
in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The woman
had taken on $4,000 in debt to cover 'fees' and other expenses
that were required for her to get a desk job that paid $6 an
But after a month, her hours were steadily reduced until she was
working only 15 or 20 hours a week. That left her with barely
enough money to survive, and with no way of paying off her
The woman and her fellow guest workers had hardly enough money
for food. 'We would just buy Chinese food because it was the
cheapest,' she said. 'We would buy one plate a day and share it
between two or three people.' She told the authors of the
report: 'I felt like an animal without claws - defenseless. It
is the same as slavery.'
Steven Greenhouse of The Times recently reported on a waiter
from Indonesia who took on $6,000 in debt to become a guest
worker. He arrived in North Carolina expecting to do farm work
but found that there was no job for him at all.
The report focused primarily on the 120,000 foreign workers who
are allowed into the U.S. each year to work on farms or at other
low-skilled jobs. In most cases the guest workers take on a
heavy debt load to participate in the program, anywhere from
$500 to more than $10,000. Worried about the welfare of their
families back home, and with the huge debt hanging over their
heads, the workers are most often docile, even in the face of
the most egregious treatment.
The result, said the report, is that they are 'systematically
exploited and abused.'
Some of the worst abuses occur in the forestry industry. The
report said, 'Virtually every forestry company that the Southern
Poverty Law Center has encountered provides workers with pay
stubs showing that they have worked substantially fewer hours
than they actually worked.'
A favorite (and extremely cruel) tactic of employers is the
seizure of guest workers' identity documents, such as passports
and Social Security cards. That leaves the workers incredibly
'Numerous employers have refused to return these documents even
when the worker simply wanted to return to his home country,'
the report said. 'The Southern Poverty Law Center also has
encountered numerous incidents where employers destroyed
passports or visas in order to convert workers into undocumented
Without their papers the workers live in abject fear of
encountering the authorities, who will treat them as illegals.
They are completely at the mercy of the employers.
President Bush has been relentless in his push to greatly expand
guest worker programs as part of his effort to revise the
nation's immigration laws. To expand these programs without
looking closely at the gruesome abuses already taking place
would be both tragic and ridiculous.
'This is not a situation where there are just a few bad-apple
employers,' said Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice
Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has initiated
a number of lawsuits on behalf of abused workers. 'Our
experience is that it's the very structure of the program that
lends itself to abuse.'
Professor Saree Makdisi : Why does The Times recognize Israel's
'right to exist'?
SAREE MAKDISI, a professor of English and comparative literature
at UCLA, writes frequently about the Middle East.
The paper consistency adopts Israel's language, giving credence
to an inaccurate, simplistic and dangerous cliche.
Los Angeles Times 03/11/07
'AS SOON AS certain topics are raised," George Orwell once
wrote, "the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems
able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: Prose
consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their
meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the
sections of a prefabricated henhouse." Such a combination of
vagueness and sheer incompetence in language, Orwell warned,
leads to political conformity.
No issue better illustrates Orwell's point than coverage of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States. Consider, for
example, the editorial in The Times on Feb. 9 demanding that the
Palestinians "recognize Israel" and its "right to exist." This
is a common enough sentiment — even a cliche. Yet many observers
(most recently the international lawyer John Whitbeck) have
pointed out that this proposition, assiduously propagated by
Israel's advocates and uncritically reiterated by American
politicians and journalists, is — at best — utterly nonsensical.
First, the formal diplomatic language of "recognition" is
traditionally used by one state with respect to another state.
It is literally meaningless for a non-state to "recognize" a
state. Moreover, in diplomacy, such recognition is supposed to
be mutual. In order to earn its own recognition, Israel would
have to simultaneously recognize the state of Palestine. This it
steadfastly refuses to do (and for some reason, there are no
high-minded newspaper editorials demanding that it do so).
Second, which Israel, precisely, are the Palestinians being
asked to "recognize?" Israel has stubbornly refused to declare
its own borders. So, territorially speaking, "Israel" is an
open-ended concept. Are the Palestinians to recognize the Israel
that ends at the lines proposed by the
1947 U.N. Partition Plan? Or the one that extends to the 1949
(the de facto border that resulted from the 1948 war)? Or does
Israel include the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it has
occupied in violation of international law for 40 years — and
which maps in its school textbooks show as part of "Israel"?
For that matter, why should the Palestinians recognize an Israel
that refuses to accept international law, submit to U.N.
resolutions or readmit the Palestinians wrongfully expelled from
their homes in 1948 and barred from returning ever since?
If none of these questions are easy to answer, why are such
demands being made of the Palestinians? And why is nothing
demanded of Israel in turn?
Orwell was right. It is much easier to recycle meaningless
phrases than to ask — let alone to answer — difficult questions.
But recycling these empty phrases serves a purpose. Endlessly
repeating the mantra that the Palestinians don't recognize
Israel helps paint Israel as an innocent victim, politely asking
to be recognized but being rebuffed by its cruel enemies.
Actually, it asks even more. Israel wants the Palestinians, half
of whom were driven from their homeland so that a Jewish state
could be created in
1948, to recognize not merely that it exists (which is
undeniable) but that it is "right" that it exists — that it was
right for them to have been dispossessed of their homes, their
property and their livelihoods so that a Jewish state could be
created on their land. The Palestinians are not the world's
first dispossessed people, but they are the first to be asked to
legitimize what happened to them.
A just peace will require Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile
and recognize each other's rights. It will not require that
Palestinians give their moral seal of approval to the
catastrophe that befell them. Meaningless at best, cynical and
manipulative at worst, such a demand may suit Israel's purposes,
but it does not serve The Times or its readers.
And yet The Times consistently adopts Israel's language and,
hence, its point of view. For example, a recent article on
Israel's Palestinian minority referred to that minority not as
"Palestinian" but as generically "Arab," Israel's official term
for a population whose full political and human rights it
refuses to recognize. To fail to acknowledge the living
Palestinian presence inside Israel (and its enduring continuity
with the rest of the Palestinian people) is to elide the history
at the heart of the conflict — and to deny the legitimacy of
Palestinian claims and rights.
This is exactly what Israel wants. Indeed, its demand that its
"right to exist" be recognized reflects its own anxiety, not
about its existence but about its failure to successfully
eliminate the Palestinians' presence inside their homeland — a
failure for which verbal recognition would serve merely a
palliative and therapeutic function.
In uncritically adopting Israel's own fraught terminology — a
form of verbal erasure designed to extend the physical
destruction of Palestine — The Times is taking sides.
If the paper wants its readers to understand the nature of this
conflict, however, it should not go on acting as though only one
side has a story to tell.
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