On his visit to Mexico last month, President Bush has again called for an expanded guest worker program. As he was renewing this call, a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center details the widespread abuse of unprotected workers in already existing programs. The report details how workers recruited abroad to work in American hotels and in other industries such as forestry, seafood processing, and construction are often shamefully exploited.
The report charges that these laborers are routinely cheated out of their wages, and are bound like indentured servants to the companies and employers who arrange their work tours in the U.S. These poor people are virtual hostages of the American companies that employ them.
The law does not allow guest workers to change jobs while they are here, so when employers are unscrupulous, workers have no recourse. The report focused on the 120,000 foreign workers who are allowed into the U.S. each year to work on farms or at other low-skilled jobs. Usually, the guest workers take on a heavy debt load to participate in the program, sometimes $10,000 or more.
Worried about the welfare of their families back home, and with huge debts hanging over their heads, workers can be easily dominated, even in the face of harsh treatment. The result, said the report, is that they are “systematically exploited and abused.” Some of this is going on in our own back yards but we do not see it. Or maybe we do not want to see it.
At the heart of many crises in our world today is blindness. We do not see the world as it really is. So we grow to hate and fear one another or, at the very least, we dismiss others as not worth very much. We tell ourselves that we would not go out of our way to get to know certain types of people. Perhaps they are fat or ugly or old. So why bother with them? At the extreme end of our blindness, we wage war on one another and kill each other in the name of protecting our own small vision of life.
The problem of personal blindness is very basic for most people. This is because we are all locked up in our cultures, in our habits, even in our friendships, and the places where we grew up. During our growing-up years, we assumed that what we saw and did was the norm. We supposed that most people saw and did what we experienced. The problem comes when we start placing judgments on others because they are different from us. Our shallow perceptions lead to judgments. Our judgments lead to separation and fear. When we live out of fear, anything can happen.
Spiritual growth can take place in the give-and-take of everyday relationships. This is brought out in a story about Saint Francis of Assisi. Three young men approached Francis and asked his blessing to become hermits. They wanted to seek God, each in his own cave, deep in the mountains. Francis smiled. He then instructed them to be hermits together in a single hut. One should take the role of father; a second should think of himself as the mother; and the third should be their child. Every few months they should exchange roles. They were to establish among themselves perfect harmony, thinking always of the needs of one another.
They carried out Francis’ instructions, discovering that human relationships are the perfect tool for sanding away our rough edges and getting at the core of divinity within us. We need look no further than our own family, friends, acquaintances, or even adversaries, to help us remove our blindness and see ourselves and others clearly.