Mississippi Masala Gets Organized [Updated]

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.

Mississippi Workers in DC.jpg Sepia Mutiny has been following this story over the past few years (March 07, March 08) about the Indian guest workers that were trafficked to the Gulf Coast…

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 they’ve been subjected to “slave” 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. government’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,

“People come up to us and ask us: ‘Are you doing this for green cards? Are you doing this to stay in the country?’ 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. They’re the ones we’re fighting for.” [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]
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About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

19 thoughts on “Mississippi Masala Gets Organized [Updated]

  1. Taz, thanks for blogging this and bringing the details to everybody’s attention. I followed the links, saw the video posted on their blog, and also checked out their photoblog on flickr, where they have photos of their visit to the Indian Embassy, including the Ambassador ‘fleeing’ the worker delegation that had come to meet him.

    This whole episode is enormously eye-opening. Writ large, this is the story of the globalization candle burning at both ends. But I am extremely impressed by the workers standing up for their rights – the solidarity they have shown as browns, and their assertiveness and steadfastness – the satyagraha and the hunger strikes. But I’m ashamed to read about how the Embassy appears to have behaved.

    The problems of white collar guest workers (H1-Bs) are not qualitatively that different. But they wouldn’t have been able to tap into support from unions and immigrant workers’ advocates that easily, or at all, since these don’t exist in the white collar workplace. The fact that these workers have gotten that support here is heartening. Also heartening is the advocacy of younger second-generation browns like Sarita Gupta and Saket Soni, who have also contacted wider advocacy groups, and been able to impact the Congressional legislative agenda.

    The question that comes up, these workers were promised Green Cards – but in many cases, they are highly experienced and had reasonably well-paying jobs in India. For them to want to leave, mid- and late-career, to come to the US, seems to me to be more a case of hope springing eternal, than any rational calculation of the likely benefit from a Green Card. I mean, as far as I can tell, it is not the case that if these workers got Green Cards, suddenly the world of opportunity would open up for them – that is a false hope both for white and for blue collar workers. I hope this gets a lot of publicity in India, so that the hope in others becomes a little more tempered, and more realistic. And I hope the Emigration Department – which is supposed to prevent exploitative conditions like this, really does their job right.

  2. Thank you, Taz.

    And in the “he said, she said” battle, I tend to lean towards listening to the little guy. It takes some real gumption to embark on this kind of thing, and you don’t do it if you’ve been treated well by your employer. Signal Corporation’s whole reaction to the situation is fairly classic: deny, deny, deny, and distance yourself from the perpetrators who’d do such a dastardly deed (and alliterate, too, of course).

    If you would like to help the workers out, send your check to:

    National Immigration Law Center 3435 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 2850 Los Angeles, CA 90010

    and put “NOWCRJ – Indian guest workers’ campaign” in the note field.

    If people have any questions about contributing, they can contact Colette Tippy of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice at 504-881-6550 or workerscenter@gmail.com.

    And there’s legislation pending to expand the guest worker programs, without any real reform efforts at all (which is fairly typical of the Bush administration). And I for one would really like to see this story break into the MSM.

  3. Stupid, lazy Malayalees, eh, “Ben”? GFY.

    Taz, thanks for covering this. I was at the protest last week. It was heart-breaking.

  4. GFY is pretty uncalled for Anamma.

    Being a malayalee, I know what these guys are up to.

    If you want to see “heart breaking” go to construction sites and tents of Saudi Arabia, UAE etc.

    These guys had very good jobs, with good pay and pretty much everything payed for. .

    By bringing the stupid “go on stike” mentality they ruined it for the thousands and thousands of who could have came after them. They had a responsiblity to make a good impression instead they brought the strike mentality with them.


  5. I saw this blog site that you were referring to as well as pics of Paul Konar and co. It was very heartening, and I felt very proud of all these brown men of all shades and shapes and religions. I’m extremely touched by their 8-days of hunger-striking peacefully to raise awareness on predatory capitalism.

    Will there be anyone raising awareness or joining in to support them in Boston? If not, what can I do to raise awareness? I know an Indian from Mississippi who could probably do a good job raising awareness on this matter.

    Ben: Shame on you for cowarding to injustice, and shame on you for placing blame on these freedom fighters. You’re the type who would have blamed Gandhi on his Salt March because this prevents your kind from future “opportunities” (at licking the shoes of your masters).

  6. Ben, I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. This is not the “stupid go on stike” [sic] mentality, and they’re not ruining it for those who come after, they’re trying to make it better. It’s not laziness when you have to escape from your barracks to get word out about what’s happening to you, nor is it lazy to embark on a hunger strike (or are you insinuating that they’re so lazy they just don’t like to chew food?).

    How do people always find ways to blame the little guy? It’s beyond me. Yeah, Signal Corporation is saintly, really, a beneficient provider for their temporary “guest” workers. How could anyone doubt the good intentions of a corporation? Corporations can do no wrong.

    Or are you telling me that just because employers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia are mistreating Malyalees, that somehow that would be impossible here in America? You don’t even make sense. I fail to see how the same deplorable practices would be “heartbreaking” when perpetrated by Saudis and Arabs, but actually a form of opportunity when it’s an American corporation.

  7. I noticed that the checks that these guest workers had were made to “Indo Ameri-Soft, LLC”. I was trying to get as much information as I could about this organization, and their contact person (and perhaps the owner) is Vijaya Rao. They seem to be the 3rd party job-placement agency. On one hand, I’m very proud of all these Indians – Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and what not – however, I’m very ashamed of this Vijaya Rao.

  8. Chachaji, your point about H1Bs is a good one. The guest worker program is not set up right at all–it’s designed to make as few people happy as possible, while helping certain companies make tons of cash.

  9. 4 · ben said

    Being a malayalee, I know what these guys are up to.

    Being a Malayalee who was AT the hunger strike last Saturday, I think I know a bit more than you might about what these men were up to.

    You switched IPs to come back and leave more unwelcome words. I think the acronym was apposite.

  10. Wow, I’m at an absolute lost for words. On one hand, I am genuinely proud of these folks, on the other hand I am disgusted that our own ambassador refuses to meet them. As an ambassador, doesn’t one of his fundamental responsibilities include representing these folks?

  11. Taz, thanks so much for covering this story.

    With respect to the s/he said issue, the numbers check out — $35/day, over a month, is over $1000 (sans February), as the workers described. With respect to the conditions of the housing, I, like Salil, tend to believe the little guy.

    I think this whole issue underscores the various serious areas for abuse in the guestworker program. By bringing attention to this issue, these folks are illustrating the very real harm that a misguided policy, coupled with poor enforcement, exacts on folks.

    Inv, I’m not surprised the ambassador refused to face (or advocate for) these workers. We see similar trends for guestworkers in other countries, especially in countries that receive a large amount of these workers’ wages back in remittances.

  12. I’m sure this has been referenced before but This American Life did an interesting story about this issue. Here is the synopsis from the show. This one is centered on a businessman John Pickle (great name): “He hires skilled, experienced welders in India and brings them to the United States. He takes their passports, barely feeds them, pays them half the minimum wage. And when the men protest, Pickle insists he’s helping them—doing them a favor in fact.”

    Link to the TAL site where you can listen to the episode for free: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1220 (click the “full episode” link)

  13. 13 · sunil said

    I’m sure this has been referenced before but This American Life did an interesting story about this issue. Here is the synopsis from the show. This one is centered on a businessman John Pickle (great name):

    sunil, thanks for putting that link up — this is one of my favorite TAL broadcasts. i really recommend it.

  14. One of the Indian guys they interview in that episode of TAL has the most awesome accent ever: Texan + Indian. It’s the strangest thing ever, yet oddly pleasant.

    And their story is great.

  15. Karl Marx’s theories sufficiently explain why there is a scope for such events to occur. My simple reasoning that there was an awareness gap between the workers and the establishment’s actions. The establishment knew what it was doing. Worker’s didnt know their rights, how the law applies to foreign workers, rental regulations, payrate parity. When they became aware and fought, the establishment receded back. It is very much appropriate that someone should make them aware of their rights and protection scope afforded by the foreign government in case of violation of contract/human rights issues before they send them abroad. An issue of whether they get green cards or not and whether it leaves a small door of (exploitative) opportunity for further generations of workers is irrelevant.

  16. It seems they came to the USA with the hope of obtaining the green card and were understandably outraged when they figured out soon after they landed here in 2006 that this understanding/false hope was mistaken. Their present actions arent going to help future H2B workers get their green cards but will definitely make companies wary of hiring indian workers under this program. The story is complicated and sad but trying to bring in Gandhi and Satyagraha is ridiculous.

    “Indeed, as to many of the workers who had signed green card contracts, the contracts had been signed before Signal even began the process of seeking foreign workers. All Signal knew was that it was told it was lawfully getting workers into this country on H-2B temporary visas.”

    The guilty party seems to be Michael Pol, president of defendant Global Resources, Inc. who approached Signal, with a proposal to provide the skilled labor needed by Signal, from lawful foreign sources.

    “As time passed, some of the foreign workers began to leave Signal, apparently for a variety of reasons. Most of the workers who left Signal absconded, i.e., they left Signal but did not thereupon return to India, in violation of the terms of their H-2B status. Apparently some left because of the cross claim defendants’ failure to provide them with the promised employment based green cards. Others apparently left because they had no intention of honoring the terms of their H-2B visas to start with, having come into the country on false pretenses. And others left because cross claim defendant Burnett, despite his duty of loyalty to his client Signal, was seeking employment-based green cards for some of the workers under the sponsorship of a different client of his (in concert with the other cross claim defendants and third party defendant); these workers left Signal when they had to go to work for the sponsor/client in order to obtain their employment-based green cards. Other workers were told, by parties other than Signal, that if they left Signal they could obtain green cards without pursuing the employment based process, or by claiming that they were victims of trafficking. Most of the reasons that the workers left Signal prior to the expiration of their H-2B visas with Signal were the result of the wrongdoings and broken promises of the other cross claim defendants.”

  17. It seems top be that there is still ray of hope in the end of the tunnel. The present actions are out dating the false hood. We have to strive for a resolution that each worker receives his or her rights.

    ======================== Mike
    Mississippi Treatment Centers

  18. Dear Friend, Do you remember me. I am Sabulal Vijayan.Lead Organizer of Indian workers who led the Indian workers to DC for March and Hunger strike.

    Do you know what is the reality now, whatever we did for our dignity in the US. it is right….but New Orleans workers Center is making money in our name. They collected a huge amount from the public and govt grants in our name. and spent nothing for us. They purchase a big office building with the money they collected from the public in our name. When we asked for the account details,New Orleans Workers Center fueled in between the Indian Workers to fight each other. Blamed their Leaders. Later Our Legal Team expelled New Orleans Worker Center and its Greedy lawyer from our Federal Court Case. New Orleans Workers Center disclosed the confidential court details to the media without our permission. Collected Huge attorney fee for filing our T visa (dependent) application. realize the real frauds…New Orleans Workers Center. Do a research on this too.Thanks.Sabulal