November 06, 2007

The Disease is Still With Us

When I was living in Tampa, I worked for a couple of months as a photographer at Busch Gardens. I didn't work for Busch Gardens, but for a company that had a contract to take tourists' photos. It was a miserable job, and my misery was compounded by something I learned a couple of weeks after I started.

This contractor, the name of which I can't remember, had quite a scam going that amounted to slavery. What they were specifically doing was offering phony internships to Korean high school students under the pretense of bringing them to the US to teach them how to run a business. When the students got here, they were housed in dinky, run-down studio apartments near the amusement park. Three or four students shared each apartment; their shifts at work were set up so that they almost never were at home at the same time. There were no phones and the "interns" weren't paid; their rent was covered by the contractor and their meals were provided to them free of charge at the park's employee cantina. Needless to say, they weren't taught how to run a business; they took photos of tourists all day long. Before I left the job, I gave one of those "interns" the contact number for the Center for Human Rights. That's the last I heard about the situation.

All of that is pretty evil, and there's more of it about than you might suspect. Still, it doesn't even come close to this horror:

Servant Testifies About Alleged Abuse

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (AP) — An Indonesian servant for a millionaire couple accused of modern-day slavery testified Monday she was forced to eat her own vomit and was scalded with hot water for misdeeds such as sleeping late and pilfering food.

The 51-year-old woman, identified only as Samirah, said through an interpreter that she was also repeatedly poked with a knife and that her ears were twisted until they bled.

The fear of being abused caused her to involuntarily urinate, she said, for which she was punished further...

Samirah's testimony began last week in the trial of Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, 51, and his wife, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani, 45. The couple have pleaded not guilty to all charges in a 12-count federal indictment, including conspiracy, involuntary servitude and other offenses.

They are accused of bringing Samirah and another Indonesian woman, Enung, to the United States to work as housekeepers but enslaving them instead in their Long Island mansion, sending $100 a month home to their families but subjecting them to psychological and physical abuse.

The Sabhnanis — who operate a worldwide perfume business out of their home — were arrested in May after Samirah, wearing tattered clothes, was found at a doughnut shop, pleading for help after apparently escaping while taking out the trash...

Samirah said she was forced to walk naked from the servants' room to the kitchen and to eat 100 chili peppers.

"Not satisfied that I wasn't dead yet," Samirah said, she was then made to consume spoonfuls of chili powder mixed with salt water. She said she vomited and was told to eat the vomit...
And this sort of thing, too, happens more frequently than one would like to imagine. There are still far too many horrific instances of slavery in the US (one is too many, of course). This is right at the top of the worst I've heard about, though, and my mind reels at the thought that human beings can be this cruel to one another. What has to be missing from someone's conscience in order for them to do things like this to another person? How is it possible for anyone to be this depraved and still function in a society that condemns behavior of this sort?

Of course, slavery takes other forms. We still have indentured servitude; it's relatively common in big agriculture, particularly in the south and even more particularly in Florida. For instance, readers might recall that there was a boycott against a number of fast food restaurants (Taco Bell, KFC, etc.) because they were buying tomatoes from growers who didn't pay workers enough to survive and kept them in company-owned housing, etc., essentially owning them. A deal was struck eventually that guaranteed Florida tomato pickers a penny per pound they picked, which was somehow going to be enough for them to get out of the inhumane conditions under which they labored and olived. Now, the growers are backing out of the deal:
Tomato growers decry extra penny per pound
By MAURA POSSLEY (Bradenton Herald)

As harvest gets under way in Manatee's fields and throughout Florida, opponents are again raising their voices against the campaign for a penny more per pound for tomatoes.

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange on Monday announced its continued stance against a "Campaign for Fair Food" by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The growers group said it believed the agreement struck by the coalition with McDonald's and Yum Brands to pay the additional penny was "non-existent," saying no growers have climbed aboard since the deal was struck...

...But the coalition contends that workers receive much less and work in unjust conditions, earning 40 to 45 cents per 32-pound bucket of the fruit, according to the organization.

If enacted, the extra penny would go directly to the farmworker who picked the tomato, according to the coalition. The organization entered into agreements with both McDonald's and Yum Brands, which includes fast food restaurants such as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC...
This, too, is slavery. It's not as dramatic as the conditions faced by the Indonesian maids on Long Island, but it's no less inhumane. Of course, many of the pickers are illegal immigrants. It's quite fashionable to despise illegal immigrants these days since they're apparently ruining our country and taking jobs away from Americans who, I'm sure, are camped out en masse at the gates of tomato farms in Florida hoping to catch their big break and earn 40¢ for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they can pick under the hot sun and the right to live in a company-owned shack with all the cold water they can bathe in. Heck, I'm thinking about blowing off this whole scientist gig and heading back down there myself. I want the good life, too!

It's comforting to think that slavery disappeared from this country in the 19th century, but it didn't. Ownership of human beings became less common, certainly, and less open, but like any good pathogen it also managed to survive and evolve. It comes in more subtle forms now, finding ways to exploit loopholes and more obscure niches in its environment. The disease itself is still all too much with us.

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