Indian guest workers protest exploitation, United States, 2008

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Timing
Time Period:  
March
2007
to
June
2008
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Mississippi and Washington, DC
Location Description: 
Streets, public venues, political spaces (in front of the White House, in the Indian Embassy)
Goals: 
Right to stay in USA as victims of human trafficking, prosecution against Signal International, LLC, and its recruiters and changes to the H-2B visa program to better protect guest workers.
 

The United States has a visa program called the H-2B visa. It allows employers to hire foreigners and let them come temporarily to work in the United States, usually for a one-time or peak load basis. The program was being expanded and supported in 2006, and Signal International, LLC (a subcontractor of the Northrop-Grumman Corporation), which works with oil rigs in Southern Gulf Coast of the US and in Texas, asked to hire around 550 Indian metalworkers to repair damage done after Hurricane Katrina. In October of 2006, 500 metalworkers went to Pascagoula, Mississippi to work on the offshore oil rigs.

The men were recruited by US and Indian recruiting agencies, which claimed that the workers could ultimately get green cards from the H-2B visas and charged them around $20,000 per person to travel to the United States with the visa. Once the workers arrived, Signal International separated them from other workers and placed them in a new facility, dubbed “man camps”. The Indians were charged $35/day to pay for accommodations, food and transportation, regardless of whether they wanted to use these services or not. The camp was enclosed and guarded. They experienced dehumanizing conditions as they were identified by numbers instead of by name and were verbally abused about their ethnic background. Many considered the living conditions cramped and unsanitary with little privacy as the company conducted surprise searches of belongings. The dining hall food was low grade and unsafe, leading to several hospitalizations.

Early in 2007 the workers began to complain about the living and work conditions and were threatened with deportation. Some members, notably Sabulal Vijayan and Mr. Kadakkarappally began to work with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and attempted to get legal advice to no avail. The company sent in armed guards to quell organizing efforts.

Signal International consulted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about how to fire H-2B visa workers and were advised to deport them without warning back to India. On 7 March 2007 Signal International attempted a private deportation based on these suggestions but were unable to, due to protests organized by the workers’ allies outside of the facility. Signal instead fired some of the employees.

Many workers were outraged at this treatment and went on strike. Some 100 men left Signal International in protest with the support of Saket Soni (director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice). The employees also filed suits against Signal International for the abuses they experienced. Many workers did not join the movement, claiming that they were satisfied with the working conditions.

On 15 March 2008, the workers began a march from Mississippi to Washington, DC, as satyagahis following in the footsteps of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Along the march, which was a mix of walking and traveling by bus, the marchers claimed to be surveyed by government agents in an effort to intimidate them. In light of this and support for their movement, many pastors allowed the marchers to stay in their churches and places of worship.

On 27 March they met with Indian Ambassador Sen in Washington, DC, and received little support. On 31 March they held protests outside of White House and tore up huge checks that they had to pay to come to the US. On 9 April seventeen workers went to New York to meet with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Craig G. Mokhiber who felt their allegations had value but said he could not commit to supporting them actively.

On 14 May they began a hunger strike. This was accomplished through waves of hunger strike volunteers, with one striker (Paul Konar) lasting 23 days without nourishment for the 29-day strike. They had difficulty accessing the Indian Embassy and protested an event there before moving to the Reflecting Pool.

On the same day as the hunger strike began, the United Association of Plumbers and Fitters Local 393 in San Jose, California, opposed Guest Worker programs, protesting the abuse. On 21 May the strikers gained the support of Congressman Denis Kucinich. Meanwhile family members in India also held a hunger strike and garnered support back home. And on 4 June the top US Congressperson for US-Indian relations, Rep. Jim McDermott, vowed to support a group of Indian labor trafficking survivors on Day 23 of their hunger strike.

On 11 June the strike ended with a Rally at the US Department of Justice.

A series of investigations started as a result of this campaign, including a federal investigation of Signal International. The company fired its recruiter and stopped hiring H-2B workers shortly after the campaign began, denying wrongdoing and claiming that the recruiters had misled both the metalworkers and the company.

On 20 April 2011 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Signal International, LLC, for subjugating Indian workers. A verdict has yet to be reached.

In part due to the effects of the protests in Washington, DC, the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act, sponsored by Senator Robert Menendez and Congresswoman Judy Chu, was passed in June of 2011. The act gave workers a voice when reporting abuses by curbing the fear of deportation and thus allows guest workers to organize with more safety and less fear of retaliation.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Gandhi's satyagahis and Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington (1)

Sources: 
"3-31-08 White House Action, Part 3 (Indian Workers Congress)." - Signal International Videos : Firstpost Topic. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2012. <http://www.firstpost.com/topic/organization/signal-international-3-31-08-white-house-action-part-3-indian-workers-congress-video-eCRvpAmWIVc-77992-2.html>.

"3-31-08 White House Action, Part 3 (Indian Workers Congress)." - Signal International Videos : Firstpost Topic. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2012. <http://www.firstpost.com/topic/organization/signal-international-3-31-08-white-house-action-part-3-indian-workers-congress-video-eCRvpAmWIVc-77992-2.html>.

"New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice." New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2012. <http://nolaworkerscenter.wordpress.com/>.

"Trafficking Row: US Firm Stops Hiring Indians." The Times of India. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2012. <http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/Trafficking-row-US-firm-stops-hiring-Indians/articleshow/2908316.cms>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Christopher Capron, 28/10/2012