February 20, 2009

Hurricane Katrina Blows in Forced Labor

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As one of our nation’s most destructive and deadly hurricanes barreled through the Gulf Coast, millions lost everything they owned, leaving them with nothing but an overwhelming mess. The government quickly became entangled in a tremendously expensive restructuring program for all the cities destroyed by this unexpected event. Consequently, the U.S. became reliant on guest-workers to rebuild the area. This developed into an embarrassing and unlawful situation as the workers began to face major human rights violations. In times of turmoil, perspective can be lost, leading to unjust practices. Are there ever times when this is acceptable?
When someone receives guest-worker status, they are promised residency with full citizenship rights for a designated amount of work. Under these conditions, more than 500 Indians were recruited to assist in rebuilding shipyards along the Gulf Coast. However, the workers were falsely promised citizenship and forced to live in atrocious conditions while earning little or no pay. Practices like these are illegal labor trafficking and can result in criminal penalties for those involved in bringing the workers to the United States. According to Chandra Bhatnagar, an attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union, “immigrant guest-workers are among the most vulnerable groups of workers in the United States”.
The guest-worker program usually proves to be a rather useful program for immigrants because it allows them to attain permanent residency. In contrast, many workers face severe and unacceptable abuse from their recruiters. As stated by Ma href=”http://www.aclu.org/intlhumanrights/immigrantsrights/37769prs20081117.html”>Chandra Bhatnagar, “often paying exorbitant sums of money to deceitful and abusive recruiters in their home countries, these guest-workers are subject to the control of a single ’employer-sponsor’ once they’ve arrived in the U.S., with no safeguards in place to protect even the limited rights guaranteed by law.”
Currently, the 500 guest-workers recruited after Hurricane Katrina have brought suit against their employer Signal International, a major marine company. According to court documents, the defendant held the workers passports and visas, obligated each worker to pay excessive recruitment fees, and made threats of physical harm if the workers neglected to tolerate the conditions of employment. Furthermore, the workers were required to live in the defendant’s guarded overcrowded labor camps and were subjected to psychological abuse. A number of human rights activist groups are assisting with the court proceeding, which will likely continue for several months.
In allowing this to occur, the government has abandoned its responsibility to protect the rights of guest-workers in our country, under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. The workers were unlawfully subjected to human trafficking and consequently, the government has allowed severe human rights violations to happen in this country. When our country enters into challenging times, does it become legal to violate the rights of other human beings?