Day 16 – Free the slaves!

29 05 2008

Back on Day Eight of the hunger strike, May 21, we were proud to have the support of Kevin Bales, leading expert on modern-day slavery and co-founder of Free the Slaves. Kevin called the workers heroes for stepping up and standing against an injustice that this most powerful country in the world seems unable to confront.”

We just received the full text of his powerful statement that day, which is below:

Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words.

Let me draw you a picture of a perfect world – of an America where those who come to shoulder our most dirty, demeaning and dangerous jobs have some protection.

It is an American where our temporary workers have an official guarantee of good working conditions. Where hours, wages, living conditions, medical benefits, and payment for lost time and injury are required and regulated. It is an America where workers are entitled to legal services; where a worker is guaranteed three-quarters of the hours in his or her contract.

Is this a dream? Is this some crazy utopia? Is this some bleeding heart fantasy? No. This is the law.

This is the law, in spite of which, these workers here today, and thousands more like them are abused every day in America.

Maybe this is a new law and we need to learn how to enforce it? No. This guestworker law and its H-2 visa is 65 years old this year. And it seems to be doddering and collapsing in its old age – more abuses, more trafficking, more slavery riding on its back than ever before.

In 2005, 32,000 workers had H-2A visas – and abuse and enslavement crept into our fields of oranges and apples to feed on these workers; into our fields of apples in Maine and fields of pineapples in Hawaii; into the cattle herds on Rocky Mountain hillsides, and into the low, devastated bayous and streets of New Orleans and the Mississippi coastline.

Imagine! A federal program that opens the door to slavery.

The list of abuses is long, we’ve all heard them: beatings, hunger, fraud, terror, crippling debt on the families back home, and even enslavement.

How can our laws be so easily broken, with such great damage to human beings?

The answer is simple and the answer is clear – our government chooses not to enforce its own law. The criminals know this and have a field day, laughing in our faces.

Recently, in the Arriaga Case, a judge riled to support the workers, yet the Department of Labor stated they would continue a policy of non-enforcement.

This is a law against deceit, fraud, and coercion – and our policy is “non-enforcement”?

This is a law against abuse, brutality, and violence – and our policy is “non-enforcement”?

This is a law against debt-bondage, peonage, and slavery – and our policy is “non-enforcement”?

This is not the America I love and believe in. This is not the country my ancestors came to, destitute, desperate, and hungry for work. This is not the policy of a country that believes in the dignity of every person – no matter what their color; no matter what their language; no matter where they come from.

The workers here today are heroes. They are heroes for stepping up and standing against an injustice that this most powerful country in the world seems unable to confront. These men may be poor, but each one of them today is very rich in moral power.

I say to them – be strong and clear with the people on Congress as you visit them today. You are not asking for special treatment; you are not asking for special favors; you are asking only for simple justice under a standing law. It is your right, under the law.

Today, the confrontation between justice and injustice is compressed to this spot – our Capitol.

Sixty-five years is a long time to wait for justice. But today you workers are here, and together we are on the move. The road ahead is not a smooth one, but together we are on the move.

How long will it take? Not long, because a law ignored can be lifted up. How long? Not long, because as Martin Luther King says “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” And the truth, your truth, the truth of your lives, will lead us there.




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