Chicago Blues

This blog is an online repertoire of my columns that run in the Indian Express, North American edition. Here I rave and rant about life, mostly as seen from the large vistas of my little world.

Location: Chicago, United States

Monday, March 17, 2008

Signal-Dewan - The Resurgence of Simon Legree?

I was recently traveling back from India via the Middle East, and at an airport there, heaving sighs of discontent over delayed flights and lost baggages alongside other stranded passengers, I noticed a rather indiscernible passenger who had other reasons to feel discontent over. The slender, hungry-faced, hunch-backed woman was being tormented by a tinier person - a child, perceptibly not more than three years of age. He was spritzing out drool, yanking her hair, and generally being unruly in demeanor. I mean, I know some very boisterous three year olds, but this was totally off the wall. From what one could see, the woman was the little boy’s nanny, and the mother of the child, who was also present, was staring into oblivion for the most part, noticeably aloof and travel-weary (the nanny too had traveled across oceans and unending miles, but she had little choice but to put up a resilient front).

And then I return home to this big explosive news about battered guestworkers in Mississippi striking me hard, as a possible parallelism to what I’d witnessed. Well, it may be distending things a bit out of kilter with the point of reference at hand, but really, what is the threshold when it comes to mistreatment? Where are the so-called boundaries when it comes to racial and overall plebeian intolerance, and therein, does the human race really stand upright or feebly totter at the abyss?

In the words of Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Project Director Mary Bauer, “Guestworkers are usually poor people who are lured here by the promise of decent jobs. But all too often, their dreams are based on lies, their hopes shattered by the reality of a system that treats them as commodities. They're the disposable workers of the global economy."

Possibly, “disposable” is what it all boils down to. Ever since the one hundred and odd Indian “disposables” with H2-B visas, employed at a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, staged a walkout earlier this month, not only have they attracted media attention, but also shaken the leaderships in India and the US off their inertia.

While the employer of these guestworkers, Signal, and the Mumbai-based recruiters, Dewan Consultants, who aided the shipping of these workers, face the music; US Congressman George Miller, in an endeavor to delve deeper into this deplorable scam, has helped throw light on some other dirty hands that may have been involved, including but not limited to big staffing agencies in India and the US.

One worker, initially promised a Green Card, was allegedly threatened of dire consequences, including having his passport confiscated if he refused to sign H2-B documents just before he boarded his flight at Bombay airport. He and several others have not been mere victims of abuse, but have possibly been rendered penniless and consequentially, shorn of morale, as they have had to sell homes and other assets in order to get these dreadful “jobs”. The point everyone seems to be missing in this struggle for a fair dealing is - even if the companies are indicted, and justice in monetary form meted out to these workers, would they ever be psychologically ready for another low-paying, low-level job?

While on the topic of slight jobs, my mind inevitably harks back to Girija, my mother’s housemaid, who not only cleaned the house, and helped manicure our little green patch, but babysat for me when called upon; and eventually became my little girl’s best friend in what was otherwise an unfamiliar environment to her for the entire span of our holiday. While she welcomed the help and compensation that she more than deserved when offered, she gleefully accompanied me on my shopping jaunts across my hometown, seated in a rickety Indi-cab, as my toddler got her beauty winks, stretching between our laps. We even spent warm, languid afternoon hours organizing closets, snapping sweet peas off their pods, and flipping rice crisps moist side up on the terrace, sharing with each other our life’s ups and downs. Although I did take pity on her for the things she’s had to endure in her personal life, I’m relieved, in retrospect that I didn’t let her know, or let her down. I’m thankful, among other little things, for being blessed with the wonderful, affirmative upbringing I’ve had, which has given me the gift of good insight and civility so I know to regard every human as one. Girija may be the “housemaid,” and I her “akka,” but she works hard for a living, like we all do, and at the end of that line, for all the hard-working, resolute, indispensable “guestworkers” in the world, there ought not to be place for anything but respect and acquiescence.

If nothing else, our children, be it boisterous three-year-olds or docile pre-teens (or boisterous-again teens), shouldn’t have to be all clued-up when it comes to Simon Legree.


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