By Brian Tierney, International Labor Rights Forum
A corporate model that puts profit before people is not interested in leaving the brutal practice of human trafficking and slavery to rot in the proverbial dustbin of history, much less modern worker exploitation. Today that callous model is resurrecting such long-denounced practices through the temporary H2B worker program and stripping the dignity of some 550 Indian guestworkers brought to the U.S. to work in the post-Katrina reconstruction of the Gulf Coast.
On Wednesday May 14, the Alliance of Guestworkers with Dignity and the Indian Worker Congress – with the support of organizations like the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, Jobs with Justice, and the AFL-CIO among others – held a rally in front of the White House to launch a hunger strike by Indian guestworkers who are demanding the federal government to investigate the guestworker program and labor abuses against Gulf Coast reconstruction workers. The workers are calling on the Department of Justice to prosecute the marine construction company Signal International for its use of human trafficking and working conditions which unmistakably amount to indentured servitude and modern day slavery in the 21st Century.
After Hurricane Katrina the U.S. company worked with U.S. and Indian recruiters to traffic over 500 welders and pipe-fitters from India to the Gulf Coast to use as cheap labor on Signal’s shipyards. Each of the workers paid $20,000 based on the false promise that they would be given permanent residency status in the U.S. for working with the company. Instead the workers were given temporary H2B worker visas, chaining them like slaves to Signal and facilitating their exploitation. The workers were forced to pay $1,050 a month to live on company property with 24 men to a room. Under the H2B program, the company has readily threatened workers with deportation and cracked down on the workers last year when they tried to organize to defend their rights as workers and human beings.
Thus, while 30 percent of New Orleans workers remain jobless and locked out of a racist reconstruction, these 550 Indian guestworkers and other vulnerable laborers like them remain trapped within that reconstruction process as cheap expendable labor, unprotected from companies’ violations of their most basic worker rights.
In March, over 100 of the workers walked out of the shipyards and reported Signal to the Department of Justice, in addition to filing a federal lawsuit against the company and the recruiters. The hunger strike launched on May 14 comes at the heels of a two-month nationwide tour by the workers.
About 15 guestworkers were at the rally alongside over 50 others who stood in solidarity with them. The workers themselves spoke about the working conditions and their struggle to pressure both the U.S. and Indian governments to investigate and prosecute companies guilty of human trafficking, as well as protecting the workers from the terror of deportation and their families in India from the violence of the recruiters. Speakers from the AFL-CIO underlined the importance of all workers standing together against these crimes and abuses, pointing out that the exploitation of guestworkers under H2B drives down the wages of all workers in the U.S. A speaker from UFCW spoke to the memory of the Emancipation Proclamation that abolished slavery and lamented that such practices and conditions persist in the U.S. in spite of that historic executive order and its corresponding amendments. There were also speakers from the Low Wage Immigrant Worker Coalition and the Asian American Justice Center.
Before officially beginning the hunger strike Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus spoke and led the group in prayer with his booming baritone preacher voice, leaving everyone moved and inspired by what these workers have been through and their courageous struggle.
The five Indian guestworkers participating in the hunger strike will be on a tarp in front of the White House in Lafayette Park for the remainder of the week (until May 17), so if you are in the area please stop by and show them your support.
To support these workers and all guestworkers suffering exploitation, call or write your Congressperson and tell them that the U.S. must end the abuses of the H2B guestworker program.