When is the last time you’ve been served by a slave? For me it was two days ago as I was spending a few days of vacation with my family on the island of Catalina off the coast of California.
We walked into a restaurant and were shown to our table. Menus and snacks were distributed while the food server asked us what we’d like to drink. A few minutes later a different food server brought us our beverages, but I had changed my mind on the choice of beverage.
“I’d like an iced tea instead of water, please,” I said to the waiter. He looked at me blankly. I restated my request and waited for a response. It was clear he hadn’t understood. I know this isn’t P.C., but I took in the features of his face and thought, “Maybe he speaks Spanish.” “Un té helado,” I repeated a third time.
A smile flirted on his face and my request was quickly granted. The main food server returned, we placed our order with her. Our meal progressed without incident until it was time to go.
The restaurant had quieted down as it was approaching 9 p.m. and the same man was wiping down the table next to ours as we got up out of our seats to go. I made a little small talk with him and he said to me in Spanish, “God bless you! I’m thankful you could explain what you wanted in Spanish.”
“God bless you, too. Have you been here long?”
“A week? Where are you from?”
“Isn’t that in Mexico?”
“Yes. And you guys? Where are you from?”
I told him we were from the opposite side of the nation here on vacation and wished him well. But as I left the restaurant there was a shadow over my heart.
Could it be our waiter was one of the multitudes of undocumented workers here in the U.S.? It was clear he didn’t have the familiarity with English or the geographical area to be able to secure a job and an apartment in a week. He probably also didn’t have the $35 for the ferry ride over from the mainland.
These are presuppositions of mine. Others could just as easily reach different conclusions, but I also took note of the general tenor of the female food server who did speak English but who never smiled.
I wondered if this restaurant routinely made use of a work force that they could underpay and overwork…all to cater to the likes of me: an overfed, upper-middle class tourist.
Were these twenty-first century slaves…workers who couldn’t come and go at their own volition? Workers who had no rights to a weekly day off or sick time because they worked under the table and didn’t have green cards?
What was at the root of this problem? Was it the difficulty of obtaining a steady workforce, the lack of affordable housing for Catalina’s workforce, the greed of the restauranteur or the incessant demands of mainland tourists?
For me the issue of human exploitation is of no small consideration, and I’m sure I will continue to mull this one over.
In the meantime, it is Thanksgiving week. Perhaps we should take time to appreciate all the “little people” who make our first world living possible…from the Chinese factory worker who makes our dollar store merchandise, to the transportation and restaurant personnel active this weekend, to the nurse who got called in on a holiday because another was sick - all to guarantee that our sick or elderly loved one was taken care of.
Tip big this Thanksgiving, and express thanks lavishly. It’s not just Mom and Dad who deserve a word of praise or an action of thanks.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.” Isaiah 58:3