‘Guest workers’ from India fight deplorable conditions

Indian workers rally in front of the Justice Dept, 06/11/2008
Workers from India rally in front of
the Justice Department to protest
inhumane work conditions, June 11.
Photo: Sarah Sloan

More than 100 workers from India and their supporters from the ranks of labor, civil rights and community organizations continued their struggle against inhumane work conditions with a rally in front of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on June 11.

The workers were brought to the United States by Signal International as federally sanctioned guest workers. Signal recruiters promised the workers green cards, which would give them permanent residency. In exchange for fees of up to U.S. $20,000, these workers received instead only 10-month temporary H-2B guest worker visas and faced conditions of extreme exploitation.

Hired to work on the Gulf Coast following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the workers had their documents stolen and wages withheld, and were forced to live in deplorable conditions. When they started organizing, they were faced with threats of deportation. Signal International sent armed guards to carry out pre-dawn raids at the workers’ housing units, and then proceeded to illegally detain several of the workers and enlist local police in an attempt to deport them.

Aware that untold numbers of other workers were also victims of international labor trafficking organizations, the workers decided to escalate their struggle for justice. They escaped from Signal International’s labor camps and, rather than returning home to their families, traveled almost entirely on foot from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., on a 10-day “journey for justice.” On May 14, they launched a hunger strike that continued for 29 days. One of the workers, Paul Konar, was hospitalized after 23 days of a water-only fast.

At the June 11 rally, Sabulal Vijayan of the Indian Workers’ Congress explained, “We are doing this not just for Indians, but for all guest workers, for all immigrants, for all human beings.” Workers at the rally demanded to stay in the United States so that they can participate in an investigation into their case. Congressperson Dennis Kucinich, who spoke at the rally, has committed to hold hearings into the workers’ case.

Organized by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, rally speakers also included AFL-CIO General Counsel Jon Hiatt, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers President John Flynn, author Barbara Ehrenreich, and other labor, religious and community leaders.

Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior minister at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., and president of Ministers for Social, Racial and Economic Justice, called on all workers in the Gulf Coast to unite. He said that unemployed Black workers from the area and immigrant workers hired for rebuilding efforts should come together to struggle for justice.

Related Articles

Back to top button