Did BP Discriminate Against Asian Fishermen During Gulf Cleanup?

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A new class action lawsuit alleges that BP avoided hiring Asian-American fishermen to help with cleanup efforts in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, bringing fresh attention to the difficulties the Asian-American community faced in the aftermath of the disaster. 

According to Courthouse News' Sabrina Canfield, a group of Cambodian and Vietnamese fishermen claim that BP "specifically demanded" that overseers of a "Vessels of Opportunity" program not hire the Asian-Americans that make up half of the affected fishermen in the region. The program was intended to help local fishermen earn back lost income by aiding the cleanup effort. The suit claims to have e-mail evidence that BP colluded with companies that oversaw the program to discriminate based on race. But why discriminate? 

Our initial guess would be that perhaps BP went out of their way to avoid dealing with non-English speakers. A May, 2010 Los Angeles Times article by Louis Sahagun recounts a community meeting with 200 Asian-American fishermen and BP representatives, set up by a community group, to address their frustrations. Chief among them: the language barrier. From Sahagun's report:

About 200 of them gathered Thursday in a sweltering bayou restaurant, trying to contain their frustrations as a BP representative, flanked by interpreters, urged them to enroll in the company's paid cleanup programs.

The programs were designed to help create a line of defense along the nation's richest fishing grounds and to provide some income to grounded fishermen.

But BP spokesman David Kinnaird offered little in the way of immediate help. He said that the company had hired enough workers for the time being but that the fishermen could get on the waiting list.

In retrospect, that story doesn't look so awesome for BP. And if they really did mandate the discrimination, that would, of course, be reprehensible. It's hard to know at this point whether the language barrier actually motivated BP's discriminatory efforts, or even whether BP did collude to exclude this community. But it adds to a long list of complaints fishermen had with the roll out of relief efforts. And either way, it'll be a case to watch out for. 

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