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Monday, 10 September, 2001, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Voices against racism: US Black workers
Blacks in the USA still face racial discrimination
By the BBC's Elizabeth Blunt

The United Nations conference on racism, held in Durban last week, came in for much criticism because of the days of wrangling and bitter disputes over slaver and the Middle East.

But for many of those who took part, it was a first chance to tell the world about their personal stories of racism and slavery.

Although slavery in the Americas has been discussed at the conference as a matter of history, in many ways the legacy of slavery still exists today.

This is especially the case in the relationship between employers and employees - the descendants of former slave owners and the descendants of their former slaves - in the southern states of the USA.

Sarah White is a factory worker and trade union organiser who fought atrocious working conditions in fish processing plants.

"I live in the state of Mississippi, in the Deep South of the United States. I come from Sunflower County - a land of cotton and catfish in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

"When Mississippi cotton plantation owners started to lose money, they ploughed up the fields for ponds and they planted catfish.

"They built a factory to process the fish; when it first opened we were excited about more job opportunities. Soon it grow to nearly 1200 workers.

"They hired nearly all black women. We worked sunup to sundown and more.

Sexually harassed

"We beheaded, gutted, skinned and cleaned catfish for twelve to thirteen hours a day, covered in fish guts and blood, and we couldn't even take the time to wash the blood off our face.

The company told us it would limit our bathroom privileges to five minutes, six times a week

Sarah White
"Through all this we were harassed both mentally and sexually; the supervisor would call meetings and tell us we were good for nothing but having babies.

"We had no time to call our own. We couldn't even take our babies to the doctor or we would be fired.

"It was hard as a black woman to stand up to these abuses - Mississippi has a very hostile climate for unions, and there's intimidation by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

"But we organised. In the beginning it was not about higher wages, it was about respect.

Five minutes bathroom break a day

"You may think that a bathroom policy is a small thing, but it turned out to be a big thing for us.

"The company told us it would limit our bathroom privileges to five minutes, six times a week.

"The bathroom didn't have doors; a male supervisor would just walk in and tell you, 'Get up and go back to work'.

"The second contract rolls around, and we start negotiation, and they say, 'Well, since you people don't appreciate the bathroom policy, we propose that you go to the bathroom during your lunch hour'.

"We told them to go to hell, and we went out on strike!"

The women catfish workers held out for three months on the picket lines - the largest strike ever in Mississippi by any workers, black or white.

Finally they won better wages, job security and working conditions - and no more bathroom policy.

See also:

08 Sep 01 | Africa
Mixed emotions as Durban winds up
05 Sep 01 | Africa
Conference split on slavery issue
04 Sep 01 | Americas
Compensation for slavery
03 Sep 01 | Africa
Racism summit turmoil: Reactions
03 Sep 01 | UK Politics
UK challenged over slavery
03 Sep 01 | Africa
Focus on the slave trade
03 Sep 01 | Europe
Europe split over slavery row
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