During our vacation a week ago, my daughter and I stopped by at the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. The organization is an advocacy group for workers involved in the reconstruction of New Orleans after the devastation of Katrina. The vast rebuilding effort led the US government to permit recruitment of foreign laborers who were accorded "guest worker" status for the duration of their employment but apparently not the same rights and protection that domestic workers are guaranteed under US labor laws. Lacking safeguards, the foreign workers are ripe targets for exploitation and abuse by contractors.
The Louisiana guest workers group includes citizens of several countries. Among them are a few hundred welders and pipe-fitters from India who were recruited by Signal International, a Marine & Fabrication Company, apparently with the lure of lucrative jobs and immigrant visas. The promise proved to be false and the Indian workers have done the unthinkable - they have launched a strike on foreign soil, demanding justice from the host nation and advocacy from their own embassy spokespersons.
Hundreds of Indian workers will return to DC next week to launch an indefinite hunger strike to demand the federal government investigate the guest worker program and abuse of post-Katrina Gulf Coast workers. Next week’s launch follows a nationwide tour by the workers – sponsored by the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) with support from Jobs with Justice – in March and April that included stops in DC. In late 2006, the workers mortgaged their futures – and $20,000 – on false promises of fortune and green cards by recruiters from marine construction company Signal International. But when the workers arrived in the US to work on post-Katrina reconstruction, they only received guestworker visas and were forced to pay Signal $1,050 a month to live in a trailer with 23 other workers. “At a time when 30 percent of NewOrleans workers were looking for work, the government suspended a law that made it illegal to hire undocumented workers,” says NOWCRJ Organizer Saket Soni. “The guestworker program is designed to control labor. It sanctions forced labor by migrants and further disenfranchises the most vulnerable American workers.” The hunger strike will specifically call on the Department of Justice to prosecute Signal International and for Congress to hold hearings on the guest worker program in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast.
When first approached, the Indian Embassy to its shame, turned away the workers and has so far refused to intervene on their behalf. So the striking workers returned to Washington D.C. last week to press their case further - this time to begin a hunger strike in Lafayette Park, close to the White House and the Indian Embassy. The effort is being supported by many US labor unions including the AFL - CIO. For more on the time line and details of the strike and accompanying photos, see the NOLA Workers Center blog here.
A message from Stephen Boykewich, Media Director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice and a statement by striking workers (These came to me by e-mail. Hence no link)
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Indian hunger strikers and dozens of supporters who broke Signal International's labor trafficking chain in March will be picketing the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, tomorrow, Saturday May 17, during the Embassy's first-ever official Cultural Day, which begins at 11:30 a.m. (See info from embassy website below.)
Saturday will mark Day Four of the water-only hunger strike protesting Indian government inaction in the workers' quest for justice against a US-Indian labor trafficking racket.
We expect the picket will a great embarrassment for the embassy, which shut out 5 of its own citizens, including 2 of the hunger strikers, when they attempted to deliver a collective statement about the hunger strike's goals on the day of the launch, Wednesday, May 14. (See photo coverage of the incident at www.flickr.com/photos/nolaworkerscenter)
The story is developing very quickly, with support for the workers growing rapidly among US organized labor and social justice communities. On Wednesday, May 21, 12 more hunger strikers plan to join the original 5.
The collective statement the workers attempted to deliver to the Indian Embassy on May 14 is attached. Please let us know how we can help with your coverage, and thank you again for your time and attention!
Stephen Boykewich, Media Director
New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice
Statement of Indian Workers' Congress at Launch of Hunger Strike
May 14, 2008
We represent over 550 Indian guestworkers who were trafficked to the United States Gulf Coast in late 2006. Eighteen months after we first started organizing for our dignity, we have reached our last resort: the hunger strike we are launching today. We want to bring our employer, Signal International, to justice for holding us in forced labor in the land of liberty. We want US Congress to hold hearings that will show the world the realities of the US guest worker program. And we want our own Indian government to take action to protect future workers coming to the US from India.
We risked all we had to come to the United States: our families, our homes, our life savings. We gave everything for a chance at the American Dream, and instead we woke up in an American nightmare
We took another great risk in escaping from Signal’s labor camps and exposing the crimes of the company and its recruiters to the world. We walked in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and the path of US freedom fighters, through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to tell our stories at the White House Gates.
But today, after all this, we are the ones who are being treated like criminals. We are told we must turn ourselves in for deportation procedures before we can participate in an investigation into our case. We know this is what Signal wants for us - to disappear back to our homeland to drown in an ocean of debt. But they cannot silence us so easily.
We paid $20,000 each for green cards that never existed, but we are not fasting for green cards. We gave up our life savings for the chance to bring our families to the land of opportunity, but we are not fasting to have them at our sides. We are conducting this hunger strike for one thing: the chance to help justice to be served. We know that if we remain silent the way Signal wants our brothers and nephews and neighbors will be next. We have sacrificed everything we had, so now we are laying down our lives.
We ask the US government to grant us Continued Presence in the United States under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act so we can participate in the investigation into our case with dignity and without fear. We ask the members of US Congress who have heard our story and supported our struggle to call for hearings on abuses in the guest worker visa program. We ask the Indian government to take action on our behalf and convince the United States that it must grant us Continued Presence and hold Congressional hearings. If we, the workers of India can have the courage to talk to US Congressman and federal authorities, then surely the Indian government can do the same, so that no other Indian worker suffers as we did.
Update: Lindsay Beyerstein has more.