Another Kind of Reproductive Justice Struggle

Posted on 6.21.2012 by Amy

Here’s a reproductive justice issue that came to my attention this week.

Workers at the Louisiana-based crawfish supplier C.J.’s Seafood are accusing their employer of locking them into the plant, forcing them to work 24-hour shifts without overtime pay, and threatening them with beatings to make them work faster. They say their employer threatened violence against their families in Mexico when they contacted authorities.

One worker described the threats:

“If we didn’t finish our production quotas, we were told we couldn’t take breaks and the manager said while blocking the exit that if we didn’t understand that then we would understand ‘with a shovel.’” -Silvia Alfaro, 39

The employees were hired as guest workers under a program that allows U.S. companies to temporarily hire foreign workers if they can show there aren’t enough U.S. workers to fill the jobs. Critics say the H-2B program essentially legalizes low pay and exploitation of migrant workers.

C.J.’s supplies seafood to Wal-Mart. The retail giant has said it’s been “unable to substantiate” workers’ claims. But an activist said no one from the company had bothered to contact the workers who complained.

Wal-Mart is where a lot of women go for birth control, Plan B, infant formula, diapers and a whole range of affordable, reproductive rights-related stuff. It’s also been a site of battles over access to basic health care, with some pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control.

Wal-Mart has also faced accusations of using suppliers that run sweatshops and paying millions of dollars in bribes to Mexican officials for construction permits.

Here’s another fun fact about Wal-Mart: the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have a collective wealth equivalent to the entire bottom 30 percent of U.S. society.

Have I wandered off the reproductive rights track? Bear with me for a sec.

When someone more powerful than you are threatens your family and makes your way of life feel impossible, that’s a reproductive justice issue, isn’t it? Sure, we’re not talking about IUDs or Pap smears here, but reproductive justice is about the right of every person to have the families and the lives we want to have. That’s the whole beauty of the term “reproductive,” right? We’re creating the world we want to live in.

Maybe that’s why C.J.’s workers carried poster-size photos of their families on a protest march this week.

In other news, but along similar lines, legislators in Michigan this week joined with playwright Eve Ensler in a performance of the “Vagina Monologues” at the state Capitol. The performance was a response to two female lawmakers getting banned from the House floor after one used the word “vagina” and the other spoke about vasectomies.

Democratic Representative Lisa Brown drew a backlash after telling her colleagues, “I’m flattered that you are all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”

She later noted, “We shouldn’t be legislating vaginas, if you can’t say ‘vagina.’”

Speaking at the action and in an apparent reference to “Over It,” her powerful poem about rape culture, Ensler declared she was “over dudes who can’t even say ‘vagina.’”

Me too. The idea of legislators performing the “Vagina Monologues” at the Michigan State Capitol and getting booted from the floor for too much vagina-ing makes me want to dance around and hoot.

So does the idea of workers carrying photographs of their families as a way of sticking it to a corporation with more collective capital than a third of the U.S. population.

There are a great many words the lawmakers and Ensler might have added to the performance to be more inclusive of all people, without and without vaginas, with and without citizenship rights. They might have noted, for example, the workers’ simple call for “Dignity.”