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

Hostage Crisis Could Divide Japan Over Plans to Boost Military

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday the government is working closely with the Jordanian government to secure the release of remaining Japanese hostage Kenji Goto More

Video Brussels Shaken as New Greek Leader Challenges Europe’s Austerity Drive

Country's youngest ever PM Alexis Tsipras, 40, sworn in Monday and says he will restore dignity to Greece by ending spending cuts More

Multimedia National Geographic Photo Camps Empower Youth

Annual mentoring program's mission is to give young people a voice to tell their own stories through photography 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.
Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visiti
X
Aru Pande
January 26, 2015 9:33 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video US, EU Threaten New Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has blamed Russia for an attack by Ukrainian separatists that left dozens dead in the port of Mariupol and cast further doubt on the viability of last year’s cease-fire with the Kyiv government. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Kerry Warns Against Violence in Nigeria Election

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria Sunday in a show of the level of concern within the U.S. and the international community over next month’s presidential election. Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, and even music, are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. VOA’s June Soh met some animal artists at the zoo in Washington. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Saudi, Yemen Developments Are Sudden Complications for Obama

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the collapse of Yemen’s government have cast further uncertainty on U.S. efforts to fight militants in the Middle East and also contain Iran’s influence in the region. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports on the new complications facing the Obama administration and its Middle East policy.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.

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

All About America

AppleAndroid