Bringing Back the Plantation: Kiawah Island Golf Resort

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Guest worker

The Kiawah Island Golf Resort located just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the most lavish, expensive and elite vacation destinations on the east coast of the United States. The resort has five golf courses. Golf World magazine has named it the number one golf resort in the United States. Kiawah Island gets five stars from Forbes magazine, and Conde Nast has awarded it the distinction of being the number one island destination in North America. In 2012 the resort hosted the PGA championship. A round of golf and room at the Sanctuary Hotel costs $405 a night. Other rooms go for $1,000 a night. For a mere $2,295 guests can enjoy both Kiawah Island and Charleston for four nights with a few meals thrown in and a couple of rounds of golf guaranteed to help ease the tension of rapacious profit seeking and exploitation for the 1%. Golf and travel magazines love Kiawah Island, showering it with lavish praise for its luxury and commitment to genteel service.

Of course, this temple to bourgeois sensibility is located in the state of South Carolina. South Carolina, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics has an unemployment rate of 6.6%. The state also has a poverty rate of 18.6%, with about 860,000 South Carolinians living below the federally defined poverty line. Women and children suffer the most with poverty rates of 20.2% and 27.5% respectively. About 33% of Latinos and African-Americans live below the poverty line right outside the gates of this fabulous resort.

One would think that with so much poverty and so much unemployment Kiawah Island would have no problem recruiting low-wage workers to serve the needs of its self-important clientele while they take respite from their hard weeks’ work of exploitation. But, in a society that rewards the undeserving and rapaciously exploits everyone else in a dizzying race for profit, even the most socially excluded and exploited are too expensive for Kiawah Island. In an effort to secure the lowest possible costs for wages and benefits the Kiawah Island Golf Resort simply passed over the poor of South Carolina and reached out to the poor of Jamaica to meet the needs of its clientele on its sprawling plantation-like resort. The H-2B program under which the resort hired these temporary Jamaican workers requires certifications that there are no local workers available to meet the resort’s needs. It also requires that those guest workers be paid a prevailing wage determined by the U.S. Department of Labor.

As if recruiting foreign labor rather than employing its neighbors was not enough, this lavish temple of excess proceeded to cheat its imported workers (some would say trafficked workers) out of their wages. First the Kiawah Island Golf Resort failed to reimburse recruitment fees paid by the workers, which is required under the provisions of the federal H-2B guest worker program. Second, in true plantation style the resort charged the workers outrageous fees for housing and transportation. The workers were required to live in an apartment complex an hour from the resort (far enough away so “privileged” guests would not be uncomfortable) and bused them back and forth to the island. Third, the resort simply ignored a wage increase mandated by law. Fourth, the law requires that the workers be reimbursed for the expenses they incurred in obtaining guest worker visas and traveling from Jamaica, totaling about $600 each. The resort never reimbursed their guest workers. So, the Kiawah Island Golf resort was recruiting foreign workers by promising them a wonderful job opportunity in America, and then refusing to pay them the wages they were owed under the law.

What is even more instructive about labor exploitation and human trafficking at Kiawah Island Golf Resort is how such an elite vacation destination came to qualify for participation in the guest workers program. After all, exploitable labor is in no short supply in South Carolina. The key mover and shaker in this farce is South Carolina, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. You know, the man who never met a potential war he didn’t want others to fight, who never met a poor person worthy of assistance, and who never met an immigrant he wanted to allow into the United States. It was Senator Graham who intervened on behalf of Kiawah Island to get a Department of Labor waiver to bring Jamaican workers into South Carolina to provide services for the 2012 PGA Championship. And, by the way, Senator Graham also holds many of his fundraisers at Kiawah Island.

But this is not just a story about one lavish resort serving the needs of the rich with smiling, servile, imported servants. It is not just a story about the horrifying image of a tradition of plantation labor once again appearing in South Carolina. It is not just a story about political hypocrisy. It is portrait of the United States in 2015. We have become the ultimate plantation nation under the thumb of a handful of oligarchs and their paid politicians which exploits the poor with feverish zeal and rewards the undeserving with lavish wealth. Kiawah Island is South Carolina’s Palace of Versailles. Senator Graham, the PGA and the masters of Kiawah Island would do well to remember what happened at that other palace.

Sources:

Ellis, S. 2014. South Carolina poverty rate nearly stead but still ranks 9th highest. The State. Columbia, South Carolina (9/20/14).

Elvis Moodie, et al. v. Kiawah Island Inn Company LLC.

Southern Poverty Law Center. 2015. SPLC sues exclusive golf resort for cheating Jamaican guest workers. (3/31) (http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/news/splc-sues-exclusive-golf-resort-for-cheating-jamaican-guest-workers)

Wise, W. 2015. Federal lawsuit claims Kiawah resort underpaid Jamaican workers. The Post Courier. Charleston, South Carolina (3/31/15).

Gary W. Potter
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

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