Olivia Guzman speaks out on migrant worker slavery – June 2014

This week, The Guardian reported that Walmart and other major retailers are selling seafood produced by Burmese migrant workers trafficked onto slave ships in Thailand.

The below statement is by Olivia Guzman, a guestworker in the U.S. seafood industry and member of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), on June 13, 2014:

Olivia-statement-350Watching the report on conditions for workers on these slave ships, I’m angry and appalled. It is clear that slavery is still alive in 2014.

As a longtime migrant worker who came from Mexico to the U.S. on H-2B visas, I know what it means to leave your home to find a way to support your family. Compared to the workers from Burma and Thailand who ended up being sold onto slave ships, my fellow guestworkers and I are privileged. At the same time, we see ourselves in them. We also arrive to a system where bosses hold us in abusive conditions by using threats. For the workers in Thailand the threats are violence and death. For us in the United States the threats are deportation and blacklisting.

I joined the NGA in 2009 because I had seen too much abuse, and I wanted to change it. I worked in seafood processing on the supply chains of Walmart and other retailers for nearly 17 years. My fellow workers and I have often been paid below the minimum wage. We live in crowded labor camps on company property under constant surveillance. We fear firing, deportation, and blacklisting all the time. In one plant supervisors even hit us to make us work faster. When workers spoke up, employers would silence them with the threat of blacklisting: locking workers out of jobs permanently by removing them from the employment list and reporting them to immigration so they would no longer be able to work in the U.S.

As a member of the NGA I met many other workers like me and began to organize. I spoke up in meetings, visited worksites, and brought grievances about the labor camp to my boss.  For that I was blacklisted this season. I knew about this risk, but I knew that if I didn’t speak up, the abuse would keep getting worse. I’ve been encouraging my co-workers here to stand up and organize, and I want to tell the migrant workers enslaved in Thailand to do the same.

Walmart and other major brands should be ashamed of profiting from this abuse, and they should work to stop it. They should take responsibility for conditions we migrant workers face on their supply chains in the U.S. and in Thailand. Walmart is a very powerful company, and if they want to stop this abuse, they can do it.

Stopping buying from a known abuser isn’t enough. Brands need to make sure their suppliers enact protections to block forced labor and threats of retaliation, which keep workers from coming forward to report abuse and exploitation.

That’s why we have launched the NGA Forced Labor Prevention Accord. We urge major retailers like Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, and others to sign the accord as a step toward avoiding this extreme abuse.

Workers around the world have shown bravery to stand up against abuse and forced labor. Big retailers need to do the same.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

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