Sunday, May 17, 2009

Where Outrage and Compassion Meet

When Margaret and I proposed going to the Globe Indian Restaurant for lunch yesterday, our friend Rebecca got a funny look on her face. It seems that the owner, Lotti, has been arrested for his treatment of his employees who were virtual slaves. One employee died of pnemonia because, Rebecca said, Lotti refused to take him to the hospital. We were aghast. We eat there every chance we get, and like Rebecca, we don’t want to support inhumane business practices. I also got an uneasy feeling. Was the employee who died our favorite waiter, Sebastien, who suddenly stopped working at the Globe about a year ago? We never asked Lotti or his wife what happened to him. We simply assumed that he had been fired because he wasn’t a very good waiter, kind of chatty and slow.

Late last night I googled “globe indian topeka kansas arrest” and learned more. It seems that Sebastien died over a year ago, on April 28th 2008. I haven’t found any evidence that Lotti refused to take him to a hospital, but the news accounts I’ve read say that he was present when paramedics responded to the 911 call, initially denied employing Sebastian, then admitted to keeping all his personal identification at the restaurant, a common strategy of enslavement. In a subsequent investigation, Lotti told federal agents that a restaurant owner in Kansas City had transported Sebastien to Topeka when Lotti needed a new waiter. Lotti said that he could get illegal workers from any Indian restaurant as far away as Chicago.

Lotti was convicted on April 7, 2009 of three charges of “harboring illegal immigrants for commercial advantage or private financial gain ” “Harbor” is a very strange term for what he did to Sebastien, as to at least two other waiters: forced him to work up to 70 hours a week for what seems to be about $4-5 per hour. I gather he faces up to thirty years in prison and a fine of $750K. I doubt he’ll be punished that harshly.

Perhaps exhaustion is part of why Sebastien was such a slow and disorganized waiter. Or perhaps he was hoping that if he worked slowly enough, Lotti would let him return home to his wife and children in India. All of the news reports say that he had complained that he was being forced to work, but none of them say whom he complained to or there was any relationship between his complaints and his death.

The last time we saw Sebastien, he seemed to be in pretty bad shape. He had a huge bruise on the side of his face and his pallor was grey. He also seemed subdued, taking our order and bringing our food without any conversation. We made a lot of what now seem to be stupid assumptions: that he had gotten into a fight, that he was in pain. Now I’m guessing that he was close to death and had either fallen due to weakness or been struck by Lotti in anger. We didn’t say anything, out of fear of intruding. I don’t know if our concern would have made a difference. But I sure do wish we had reached out.

So today I am remembering Jacinta Sebastian Pereria who died in Topeka, Kansas at the age of 53, far from the people who loved him.

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