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
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid