Sunday, May 25, 2008

Indian Guest-Workers in New Orleans on Hunger Strike

Posted by Lindsay Beyerstein, Majikthise at 2:09 PM on May 20, 2008.

Indian guest workers rebuilding New Orleans are striking to protest abusive work conditions.

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Ruchira Paul reports that Indian guest workers are striking in New Orleans:

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 are guaranteed to domestic workers 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, 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.

Read the whole thing. Please circulate widely.

Twenty-four guest workers from Signal International have been on a hunger strike at the White House since May 14. Fifteen more hunger strikers will join them tomorrow and another fifteen will arrive on the 31st.

Various labor and civil rights organizations are supporting their campaign including D.C. Jobs with Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the AFL-CIO.

The workers are asking for the Indian government to press the United States for fair treatment. India has already pressed other countries to do right by Indian guest workers, including Malaysia and Bahrain:

"The Indian government needs to show the kind of courage with the US that it showed in labour talks with Malaysia and Bahrain," said Sony Sulekha, who is on hunger strike. "If we could sit down and talk with the US Congressmen, we believe our leaders can too."
"This hunger strike is a last resort," said Saket Soni, a worker's advocate who directs the New Orleans Workers' Centre for Racial Justice.
The workers are demanding that Indian parliamentarians press their US counterparts for a Congressional investigation into abuses in the US guest worker visa programme.
They also want the ministries of foreign affairs and overseas Indian affairs to press the US State Department to secure the workers' right to participate in a human trafficking investigation into Signal International and its American and Indian recruiters. [Hindustan Times]

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action suit on behalf of the Signal workers in March.

I reported on the plight of the Indian guest workers at Signal International last year. These skilled welders and pipe-fitters are being trafficked to the US under false pretenses. Fraudulent immigration brokers in the US and India promise them green cards and highly paid jobs. All of them go heavily into debt to come here. When they arrive, their wages turn out to be a fraction of what they were promised.

Worse still, they find out that their H-2B visas are only good for a short time. So, there's no way they can pay back the huge debts they've incurred. To make matters even worse, they are forced to live on company property with room and board subtracted from their wages. Many of these men have mortgaged everything they own to come here. Typically, they are in debt to loan sharks who charge exorbitant interest.

Desperation sets in.

I interviewed one Signal worker, a father of two, who attempted suicide because he was so overwhelmed by his situation. Guest workers at other plants in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida have taken their own lives.

Because of their living situation and their immigration status, guest workers at Signal are under 24-7 control by management. They can be sent home at any time, for any reason. Immigration authorities consider H-2B workers to be a major flight risks under these circumstances.

So, immigration authorities tell management to forcibly detain any worker they are planning on firing and deporting.

When Signal wanted to send two guys back to India for "making trouble" in the camp (i.e. complaining about working and living conditions) they sent company guards to detain the guys in a trailer at gunpoint pending deportation.

No matter where you stand on immigration, it's clear that what's happening at Signal and in guest worker programs all over the country is wrong.

Legal workers are being systematically abused and exploited all over the country and US immigration and labor authorities are looking the other way.


Tagged as: strikes, labor, new orleans, immigrants, guest workers

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