News / USA

Gulf Coast's Asian Communities Hit Hard by Oil Spill

Hampered by language barrier, seafood industry workers face uncertain future

Von Wesson (middle, in blue cap) and her fellow workers are paid by the pound of crab meat they clean from the shells. With fewer crabs coming in, they're earning less money.
Von Wesson (middle, in blue cap) and her fellow workers are paid by the pound of crab meat they clean from the shells. With fewer crabs coming in, they're earning less money.

Multimedia

Audio
Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

With large sections of the Gulf of Mexico still closed to fishing due to the massive oil leak, workers in the seafood industry have been hurt all along the southern coast of the United States.

A large portion of workers in Alabama's seafood capital originally hail from Southeast Asia, and they face cultural barriers that make coping with the disaster even more difficult.

Long process

It's 6:45 a.m., and hundreds of people are lined up in front of BP's compensation office in the small Alabama town of Bayou La Batre.

They are filing claims of lost income so they can get $5,000 from the giant oil company to pay their bills.

The air is humid and a breeze rolls in from the sea.

Sue Athanasay brought her grandkids and some plastic chairs to sit in while they wait. It's a long wait. They got in line at four in the morning and the office won't open until seven.

Athanasay, originally from Laos, plans to file paperwork for her pregnant daughter, who works in a crab processing plant.

A one-third of residents in Bayou La Batre is from Southeast Asia. Many of them work processing seafood caught in the Gulf of Mexico. In a refrigerated workshop, employees from Laos and Thailand in blue aprons crack crab shells over and over for up to 12 hours a day.

Lost income

Von Wessen, who came to Alabama from Laos when she was three years old, explains that processing the seafood is a skill.

"You have to learn it because if you don't do it right you'll have a lot of bones and a lot of broken pieces."

She and the other workers are paid by the pound of crab meat they clean from the shells, not by the hour. With fewer crabs coming in, it means less money for them.

"This is like our peak season," she says, "so usually we'll be working a full day. And we're only working a few hours, like five or six hours. So it's cut our income down significantly."

Employees, many from Laos and Thailand, crack crab shells for up to 12 hours a day in Bayou La Batre, Alabama.
Employees, many from Laos and Thailand, crack crab shells for up to 12 hours a day in Bayou La Batre, Alabama.

Language barrier limits opportunity

With income down, many are applying for compensation from BP, or signing on to help clean up the oil spill.

But all the forms and training are in English, so Wesson and her peers have been translating more and more for older members of the community. "In one way or another, they've helped me throughout the years, so I don't mind helping them back," she says.

Many immigrants on the coast struggle to communicate in English.

Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang heads Boat People SOS, an organization that advocates for Southeast Asians in the United States.

He says a lot of people who fled here after the Vietnam War eventually ended up in the seafood industry on the Gulf of Mexico.

"They figure out that this is among the very few jobs that they can find employment in," says Thang. "Because they don't speak English that well and therefore they don't have too many choices."

Thang points out that poor English skills make it harder for Southeast Asian immigrants to leave town and transition into other jobs.

"They may not even qualify for job training programs and placement programs and most of them don't have any relatives around here or across the country so most of them are kind of stuck here."

Bleak outlook

Kimchi Thai is facing that bleak prospect.

She came to the U.S. from Vietnam 19 years ago. She works on her uncle's shrimping boat, supporting her children and her mother. Now, with no fishing allowed, she is out of work.

Thai doesn't know how to keep going when most of her knowledge revolves around seafood and the ocean. She wants to know how is she supposed to find another job with no other skills.

Thai says all she can do is just wait to see if help will come. She filed a compensation claim with BP, getting a friend to help her with the English-only forms.

Uncertain future

The U.S. seafood industry has been declining for a number of years now, according to Thang of Boat People SOS. He says competition from imported seafood and rising fuel costs have made it harder and harder for people to make a living from the ocean.

"This catastrophe expedites that process," he says. "We've been thinking of finding alternatives to jobs in the fishing industry. We haven't found the solution yet but we've been working on it even before the oil spill."

Back in the crab factory, Von Wesson slices into a small red crab with a sharp knife and hopes for the best. "With the oil spill, we don't know the effect of it yet. It's not like a hurricane, you know, you get to see the effect right away. It might affect us for years and we just don't know it yet."

For many workers, the only choice is to wait and see what happens. Right now, the future and livelihoods of this community are as murky as the crude oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

You May Like

Photogallery Early Nigeria Results Show Buhari Leading; Tampering Concerns Mount

One local group monitoring polls is concerned politicians might use security agencies to 'fiddle with the election collation process' at state level More

UN: 7,300 Civilians Killed in Boko Haram Insurgency

A senior UN humanitarian official tells the United Nations Security Council 1,000 people have been killed this year More

Turkish President Warns Iran About Trying to Dominate Middle East

Warning comes amid growing concerns inside Turkey that it will be sucked into a sectarian conflict with its neighbor More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadistsi
X
Greg Flakus
March 30, 2015 6:48 PM
At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video With Coalition Airstrikes, Iraq Entering 'Last Page' of IS Battle

American warplanes joined Iraq's battle against the so-called 'Islamic State' in northern Iraq late Wednesday, as Iraqi ground troops launched a massive assault on Tikrit. Analysts say the offensive could take the coalition a step further towards Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State forces. Others say it could also deepen already-dangerous sectarian tensions in the region. VOA's Heather Murdock has more from Cairo.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Hi-tech Motorbike Helmet's Goal: Improve Road Safety

In cities with heavily congested traffic, people can get around much faster on a motorcycle than in a car. But a rider who is not sure of his route may have to stop to look at the map or consult a GPS. A Russian start-up company is working to make navigation easier for motorcyclists. Designers at Moscow-based LiveMap are developing a smart helmet with a built-in navigation system, head-mounted display and voice recognition. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video DOJ: Illinois National Guard Soldier Tried to Join ISIS

U.S. federal law enforcement agents arrested two suburban Chicago men accused of trying to join ISIS overseas, while also plotting attacks in the United States. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, one of those arrested is a soldier of the Illinois National Guard.
Video

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Traditional push-rim wheelchairs create a lot of stress for arm, shoulder and neck muscles and joints. A redesigned chair, based on readily available bicycle technology, radically increases mobility while reducing the physical effort. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More