It has the typical story framework of the Indian H-2B guest workers trafficked to the US to work for little money and live in cramped quarters. Except in this story the guest workers have fought back with a strategic two year grassroots campaign, culminating in Washington DC this week.
Signal International, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Texas and Mississippi, hired approximately 300 laborers from India as welders and pipe fitters in Mississippi under a guest worker program. In addition to decent wages, Signal allegedly promised good accommodations and steps to permanent US residency to its guest workers. But some of these workers have protested that Signal did not live up to any of its promises, and that theyâ€™ve been subjected to â€œslaveâ€ conditions. [Sepia Mutiny]
In the past year, this group of of workers have really organized, and organized well with the support of the New Orleans’ Workers Center for Racial Justice.
On March 6, 2008, over 100 Indian shipyard workers walked from their jobs in Pascagoula, Mississippi, located on the Gulf of Mexico…The Pascagoula workers who participated in the walkout, all highly skilled men from India who had paid recruiters to bring them to work in the U.S., contend that they have been subject to human trafficking. [Samar Magazine]
From Mar 18-27, 100 workers held a satyagraha or truth in action, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, traveling from New Orleans to Washington DC, to reveal the truth of the guest worker program that is being used to sanction forced labor by migrants and to further disenfranchise the most vulnerable American workers. [Press Release]
On May 14th, the workers launched a hunger strike in front of the White House, The hunger strike ended this past Thursday, after eight days of fasting. Their demands? A continued presence in the US or the duration of the Department of Justice investigation into their case, a Congressional hearings on the abuses of the guest worker program, and a just immigration system. Most importantly, they are organizing to shed light on the abuses of the U.S. governmentâ€™s H-2B guest worker program. And guess what? They even have a BLOG where you can read and see pictures from the hunger strike. There’s a picture on the blog of Paul Konar, a 52 year old former boxer via Qatar. Paul said,
â€œPeople come up to us and ask us: â€˜Are you doing this for green cards? Are you doing this to stay in the country?â€™ What is our fight really about? It is about the workers who will come after us. They need a stable base so they can some and live better than we did. Theyâ€™re the ones weâ€™re fighting for.â€ [NOWCRJ Blog]
Signal International is of course claiming to have known nothing about it and blaming third part recruiters for getting them into this mess.
Signal built on-site housing for the temporary workers given the shortage of local housing after the two hurricanes. Currently, the average temporary worker at Signal earns $19.69 an hour plus overtime…Apart from their pay and benefits, Signal’s Indian temporary workers pay a $35 per diem to live in Signal-provided housing, which meets OSHA standards. [Signal International]
In contrast, the workers say otherwise.
The workers also claim that Signal forced them to live in substandard housing, with 24 men crammed into a small room. The men say Signal charged them more than $1,000 a month to live in company housing. [ABC News]
Sounds like a lot of “he said, she said” but what both parties agree on is that reform is needed on H-2B visas. Now if only they can get the Congress and the Department of Justice on board. It seems that Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, wouldn’t support a guestworker program until further reform is made. But only time will tell. [PWW]
Accidental Blogger recently just visited the New Orleans Worker’s Center for Racial Justice with her daughter, and blogged about her experience. In addition to the walkout, satyagarha march, visits to DC, and hunger strike, the workers also released a statement, which can be found entirely on her blog. An excerpt:
We paid $20,000 each for green cards that never existed, but we are not fasting for green cards…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.[Accidental Blogger]