Many of us were angry, with some right on our side, as the abuses in the building of the new NYU campus in Dubai were made public. Workers had not been paid, they had been forced to sleep in the incomplete buildings, their basic needs were trampled on in a way that we found offensive. There were demonstrations and protests. From my armchair, I approved.
Then, in Act II, the New York Times wrote a scathing revelation of abuses at nail salons in New York City. We all pass one or more of them each day. I know that for the past two weeks I do not look at them in the same light. I think of the workers who are not paid, who live on tips, who breathe cancer-causing dust particles. These are aliens, some illegal, most living in housing which belongs to the shop owner and forced to pay that owner for the privilege of living in squalor. I became more indignant, but was somewhat reassured as the politicians were quick to act. I am not confident that they really addressed the issues, but they are acting.
But, today, I learn that a chain of Long Island gas stations is practicing something similar. Once again, it is the poorest of the poor being exploited : wages withheld, being forced to sleep in a garage, or renting beds in homes owned by the gas station manager... It goes on and on. When an employee dared to sue, the owner transferred his assets to a son and so was insolvent.
Before I caught my breath on that abuse, I read about the conditions in public housing in the city,where mismanagement and indifference to the basics of human life are rampant. Leaky roofs, no gas or hot water, mold, broken elevators – the more I read, the more my blood boiled. But my rage is also wearing me down.
How can human beings treat others like this? Why are our politicians so indifferent to the common good that they have been elected to serve? Has no one heard of “Do unto others...” which exists across the religious spectrum? We are speaking about our brothers and sisters in the flesh, people with hopes and families and energy like ours.
It is sometimes easier to be angry at what happens far from our shores. I looked today at those sharing the subway with me and wondered: how many of them were on their way, not to work but to genuine abuse at the hands of another? How had their work or living conditions already endangered their health? What about that young mother with a toddler beside her and a baby in a carriage? What had already shortened their future? My prayers for them had new strength.
We can and must do better by those who services we need.