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Human rights claimed in the workplace

For almost a decade Sarah White had been working at a fish processing factory in what she remembers as inhumane conditions. Now in 2009, White, an African American born in the south in 1958, wishes her six grandchildren will never have to endure the same suffering.

An African American catfish factory worker, Sarah White speaks of her suffering and her success in organising a workers’ union to seek redress for their grievances.- © UN Photo/ Patrick BertschmannShe started work at the Delta Pride in the eighties, a catfish factory that employed 1200 workers at the time, mainly African American women earning a low income. The company’s owners and supervisors were all white.

Recounting her story at “Voices – Everyone affected by racism has a story that should be heard”, a daily side-event of the Durban Review Conference, White described a horrendous working environment.

“We had to stand on our feet for 12 hours a day in ankle-deep water that contained chlorine and other harmful chemicals that caused severe skin rashes and other serious physical ailments”, she recalls. “White male supervisors would force us to speed up our work on the assembly line so the company could make maximum profit.” White also remembers being threatened with losing her job if the supervisors thought she was too slow, being allowed six bathroom breaks a week and being sexually harassed on a daily basis.

In September 1990, five hundred workers decided to go on what would be the biggest strike in the State of Mississippi’s history. For over three months White and her colleagues fought the company’s owners for higher wages and improved working conditions. Part of their demands was conceded.

Having formed a labour union in 1986, and spurred by the victory of their strike, they decided to organise a workers’ rights movement all over the state and try to overthrow the persistent segregationist practices of the state. White says that today “Workplaces are still racially segregated. Black workers are still assigned to the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs and forced to work under conditions that look a lot like slavery”.

Sarah White went on to become a trade unionist. Through her functions she discovered that treatment of low wage African American workers was the same across the Mississippi Delta and the “Deep South”. She remembers the case of workers at the pork processing factory in Smithfield, Virginia: “Workers were denied time off and would be terminated when they took their sick children to the doctor.” She adds that today hog farms still cause tremendous environmental hazards for Smithfield residents.

White soon became part of the community and worked to empower African American women while building relationships with religious leaders. Today, after sixteen years of hardship, Smithfield workers have formed a trade union.

Mississippi is one of the poorest regions of the United States of America. Forty-three percent of its population lives in poverty and only five percent of the state is unionised. Until the 1960s, its economy relied on cotton agriculture. The industrialisation that followed brought unemployment and workers had to turn to the catfish industry. Today, African American workers are replaced by illegal Latin-American migrants who, because of their status, are shy to claim their economic and social rights.

Sarah White now serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights, and is also part of a Black women’s leadership group called the Fannie Lou Hamer Roundtable, named after the African American civil rights leader.

White first told her story at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. At the Durban Review Conference she concludes: “The reason I do this work is because as a black woman, I was put down and forced to fight for my dignity. I was humiliated and subjected to inhumane treatment. Today, I know as an organiser, my story will inspire other black women”.

2 June 2009