Mississippi Catfish Workers Fight for Rights

The Tennessee Tribune
April 16, 2003
By Keith Wright

(Belzoni, MS) - Humphreys County, Mississippi is a place where many people have relatives, friends, and roots. Home to the city of Belzoni, it also houses one of the most depressed economies in the country. According to U.S. Census figures, 40 percent of Humphreys County residents live in poverty, as do half of all its residents under age 18. The unemployment rate hovers around 20 percent, and less than half of its residents graduate from high school. Amidst such bleak economic conditions one can find frustration, anger, and hope.

The Mississippi Delta's dominant industry is catfish farming and processing. The state produces and processes roughly 75 percent of the nation's catfish. Catfish ranks fourth among agricultural and forestry enterprises in the state, with an estimated total income of $260 million. Four of Humphreys County's 7,000 residents work in the industry. The power of the industry, however, is a mixed blessing.

"It's a lot like slavery," observed Carrie Lewis, a former catfish employee. "There's no whips or chains, but there are white owners looking over your shoulder with stop watches, and if you don't suck the guts out of at least 20-30 fish per minute, they fire you." Lewis suffered sores on her arms from the disinfectant, and twice had surgery due to carpal tunnel syndrome. Her boss fired her soon after the second surgery, and finding different employment has been extremely difficult for Lewis. "They done built this empire on a lot of crushed bones, then they put them on everything but the fish factory," she said. "They worked me so hard I couldn't pull the tabs off my Baby's Pampers. Slavery just got a different name."

Employment conditions threaten workers' health and families. Workers have had to endure catfish urine splashing in their eyes because they were denied protective glasses. Helen Sims, a former catfish industry employee and a founding member of the Humphreys County Poor Folks Health and Youth Network, gave her all to the industry until her arm developed carpal tunnel syndrome. A company doctor treated it, and then fired her, accusing her of psychological instability and fraudulent claims. Doctors later found a cyst in her hand. "For four years I lived in constant hell," she recalled of her unemployed years. "My kids were barefoot and all of my utilities were shut off."

While Sims's children were suffering, she drew on spiritual values to keep from losing her mind. Today, as president of the Future Leaders of Humphreys County, a program that offers 185 teenagers recreational and educational opportunities, she is applying those values to a larger family. "The school officials are saying these kids don't have any hope, but it's the teenagers here who really need someone to bat for them."

Working with youth, Sims is concerned about more than just employees' industry-related health problems. Catfish industry employees work each day until all of the fish have been processed. Plants offer only one shift, which can last as long as 16 hours.

"When parents have to leave their home at 7:00 AM and they aren't allowed to come home until 11:00 PM, our children suffer neglect. The industry solves our employment problem, but their methods create other problems, such as our 176 children in reform schools. In the days of slavery the kids were tended because the work ended at dark. The catfish industry was supposedly put into place to preserve the very structure that keeps this country together--the family--but it is threatening our families instead. People are beginning to realize the problem, and tension is getting thick in these slave-like conditions."

Incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome runs high among catfish industry employees. Sims notes that while United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations mandate that an employee must be allowed to rotate to other plant positions when they're health is endangered, the industry ignores the regulations. Such flouting of the law is common here, according to Sims, who has seen employees ordered to process sick and old fish. "You take the maggot-infested fish, rinse it off, dip it in lemon juice and breading, and send it on its way," she explained. She recalled one inspection visit by OSHA that uncovered seven violations of the law. The plant was fined $125.

The Catfish Workers of America, an organization of present and former catfish plant workers, has been conducting a boycott against catfish producer Freshwater Farms. Among their complaints is the bathroom policy, which only allows employees seven minutes to leave their work area, walk 500 feet to the restroom area, remove their fish-gut covered layers of clothing, use the restroom, wash up, and return to their work station. "We are going to get justice," predicted Catfish Workers of America President Sammy Sutton. Several months ago 60 catfish workers were fired by Freshwater Farms for their protest of poor working conditions, a hostile working environment, and low wages, which average around $6.00 per hour even for employees who have managed to tolerate the conditions for many years.

Poor working conditions seem like a poor sign of appreciation by a catfish industry largely supported by African American labor and consumption. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference has been working for a fair share agreement in which the industry would reinvest some of the millions of dollars generated by the African American community in youth centers, scholarships, summer business internship programs, health care, and cultural events.

Few if any African Americans are employed in the farming, management, and brokering of catfish. Most catfish industry employees are African American women with little in terms of benefits. "The way this changes is by hitting them with a big stick, which in this case is catfish farmers standing up," noted Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., a medical missionary who, with his wife Sylvia, has been working to improve health and socioeconomic conditions in the Mississippi Delta for over ten years. His efforts almost cost him his life a few years ago when he was shot at from a moving vehicle. "It sure helps that people pay attention to what is going on down here," said Meyers, whose work has been covered by The Today Show and The New York Times. The television movie channel Showtime is currently working on a movie about his life.

Myers, a Milwaukee native and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Medical School, was ordained and commissioned by the Wisconsin Baptist Pastors Conference in 1990 after serving in Humphreys County, which had the highest infant mortality rate of any county in the state. Today, he assists over 4,000 patients at clinics in Belzoni, Tchula, Greenville, and Yazoo City. "Many African-Americans living in the Midwest have extended family members in the Delta" he observed. "The leadership of the Wisconsin Baptist Pastors conference, through supporting our medical ministry in Tchula, is more than just the African American churches establishing a medical out-reach; it's a family affair." Prior to Rev. Myers's clinic, Tchula had no doctor.

Myers works through the Myers Foundation, a nonprofit organization that relies solely on funding from private donations, many of which come from churches. "I administer Christ's work," he said, which includes weekly church services at the clinic in Belzoni. "I couldn't survive without the help and support from the many good people."

Myers doesn't accept federal money for several reasons, including the need for separation of church and state. "I can't accept federal funding," he said. "I can't attack the system if the system is paying me." The only African-American physician in private practice in Humphreys Country, Myers hopes to demonstrate the Gospel of Jesus Christ through holistic ministry to the poor in rural America. His beliefs fuel a commitment that goes beyond his patients' health needs.

"If you want to understand the plight of the poor, you've got to follow the dollar," noted Myers, whose clinic walls are interspersed with posters on the plight of catfish workers and carpal tunnel syndrome. He cites the creation of empowerment zones, where millions of dollars of federal money are given to communities to battle poverty. "People already in power draw the boundary lines for these zones and affect what businesses emerge," he noted. For example, one of the catfish plants in the area received $5 million to build a plant that, while enriching its owners has done little to alleviate the poverty in the region.

The Mississippi Delta Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Myers Foundation has been working with the Catfish Workers of America to sponsor the fourth annual Buffalo Fish Festival, which highlights the contributions that African - Americans make to the catfish industry. Vendors at the event, which occurs at the same time as the Catfish Festival, an event dominated by white industry officials, were asked by the Mississippi State Tax Commission to pay sales tax on their proceeds, while vendors at the Catfish Festival were not. Such state action is just the most recent example, according to Myers, of the institutional racism that pervades the region.

The Catfish Workers of America was recently refused membership in the Belzoni-Humphreys Development foundation, despite the fact that the organization is housed in a building built with public funds. The building houses catfish sculptures, which Myers says, are grotesquely disgusting to African-Americans. "I believe Blacks and Whites need to work together," he said, "but when we get to the point where the White community is just hopelessly preventing these folks from going forward you have to get to a point where you say enough is enough, and you got to help them raise up for justice!"

"He has been a big force, through fortitude and action, for grassroots people in the community," noted Sims. "He has been very supportive of people at the grassroots who run up against the power clique: people who leave the grassroots people out, who, in fact, use the grassroots to keep themselves in power and privilege."

To learn more about the issues presented in this article, contact The Myers Foundation at PO Box 637, Tchula, Mississippi 39169; 662-235-4227; www.buffalofishfestival.com; www.MyersFoundation.net.

Article copyright Tennessee Tribune.


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