(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—The consequences of the Deep Horizon BP oil spill will likely not be fully known for years and by then most of the men and women who are responsible for this disaster will either be out of office, in new jobs or retired. However, that shouldn’t stop us from paying attention to some of the newest and most disturbing aspects of the spill, which are not only environmental and health-related. Would it shock you to know that BP is using modern slavery to clean up the Gulf, and better yet, the American taxpayer is paying for it? That might make you want to buy your gas somewhere else.
One of the most disturbing impacts of the BP oil spill has been the multi-headed impact it’s had on the local economy. Let’s not forget that metro New Orleans and the Gulf region lost over 200,000 residents in the year after Hurricane Katrina and that loss of customers and employees has left the region struggling to find a new identity. The spill has essentially ended summer tourism and fishing in the region, putting thousands of seasonal employees out of work. In fact, one of the only companies in position to hire anyone is actually BP which has been tasked with the massive multi-billion dollar clean-up that in the region. Every other day you see a new spate of commercials from BP with earnest looking hardhats claiming that they’re working hard to clean up the mess and how nobody could be any sorrier than BP that this all happened. Dozens of websites have sprung up in the last several months advertising paying jobs, in the Gulf region as part of the cleanup. You would think that at least someone is getting work out this disaster, but you’d be shocked as to who’s working most.
A recent article by Abe Louise Young in the Nation magazine points out that BP is engaging in the most despicable of shell games (pun intended) in the coast region. Rather than hiring local citizens for cleanup duty, or just deploying more of their own staff, British Petroleum has been using prison labor to clean up some of the most dangerous and toxic regions of the gulf.
The problem with BP hiring prison labor is multi-layered. First, prisoners don’t have any rights, they can’t complain about inhaling fumes from oil-slicked and dispersant chemicals for 12 hours a day, or report any abuses on the part of their employers due to BP’s notorious “gag order.” Further, if they refuse the work they can lose “time off for good behavior” on their sentencing. Louisiana, the state that has the highest percentage of their population in prison, is now using that population as slave labor for BP.
But the problem is even worse when you look at the benefits for BP and the impact on the American taxpayer. Hiring prison labor means that BP, the fourth largest corporation in the world can pay as little as 10 cents an hour rather than paying locals real wages. Worse, due to Bush era tax laws companies who hire at-risk employees like prisoners or welfare recipients receive tax breaks up to $2,500 per hire or up to 40 percent of the wages paid. Meanwhile prison laborers who get sick inhaling toxic fumes and waste on the job will go back to prison where our tax payer dollars will have to cover their limited medical care. BP does it again! Destroying a region with irresponsible drilling, cleaning it up by supporting the racist and classism prison industrial complex and then getting tax breaks and health care to cover it all up provided by the U.S. taxpayer. They could not have planned this better if they intended to.
While British Petroleum has pledged $20 billion to a fund to for displaced and economically harmed locals in the region, their use of prison labor and Bush era tax loopholes to cut down their own expenses will continue unabated unless the U.S. public becomes aware and does something about it. Every American citizen should call their local congressperson or senator and ask that they close the tax loophole which allows companies like BP to benefit from prison labor to clean up messes that they have created on their own. BP needs to clean up their own mess and not get tax breaks to do it.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)