When is a person not a person? | Moment's Notice

By Maria A. Montalvo | Aug 31, 2018

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” – Bishop Desmond Tutu

Last week marked the beginning of a 19-day workers strike across the country by a group that rarely strikes and one that does not expect to be allowed to advocate on their own behalf.

They do not expect to be paid minimum wage or time off, or even federally mandated safe work places. They will not be able to protest involuntary servitude.

The group is incarcerated prisoners.

Thousands of prisoners in 17 states are protesting ultra-low or no pay, forced labor and poor conditions. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted into law Dec. 18, 1865, abolished slavery “except as punishment for a crime.”

Prisoners are required by the Department of Justice to work while in prison, but are paid nothing or far less than the same job outside of the correctional system. Recent stories in the news showed prisoners proudly and valiantly fighting California wildfires for a wage of just $1 per hour.

And although they serve under the auspices of a vocational training program, they are typically disqualified from getting a job in that field due to their criminal record.

These jobs are often for companies outside the prison, and businesses from Microsoft to Starbucks have benefitted from prison labor at an average wage of 85 cents an hour.

Last week, temporary farmworkers in Whatcom County walked off the job for two days to protest unsafe working conditions and underpayment or nonpayment of wages (a wholesale strike was held in the same area last summer).

Farmworkers are “imported” to the United States every year under federal visa programs, which allows farms to employ seasonal laborers when they cannot find enough U.S. workers.

These workers are protected by federal law to receive regular breaks, water and food, as well as clean living conditions, but often live in work camps that are fenced and locked, must request transportation to a market or bank, can be required to overpay for provided food, are sometimes underpaid due to illegal pick quotas and are expected to work more than half the hours in a day every day.

Certain farms have been cited and fined for not following U.S. law, and workers are limited in their recourse due to their visas being connected to the same farm or due to employers not providing humane conditions.

More than 1.4 million workers come to the country every year, and Washington is among the highest users of temporary visas. The Whatcom County farmworkers have returned back to work after an undisclosed settlement, and receiving food and clothing from local charitable organizations.

More than 2.3 million Americans are in prisons and jails, and most are not in for violent crimes. The striking incarcerated prisoners have released a set of 10 demands, mostly related to improved prison conditions, an end to unpaid labor, and more rehabilitation programs.

Of course, the victims of crime deserve the utmost compassion and for the justice system to work.

When viewed from self-interest, most prisoners are released back into society, so their rehabilitation is in society’s best interest, and temporary workers and immigrants are needed to keep our economy running.

From a human perspective, Bishop Tutu is right, we can only be human together, and once one person is justified as be less worthy of humane treatment, everyone is less worthy.


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