Exploited Guestworkers March on White House

Chanting, "All the way to the White House!" and carrying signs, saying "I Am A Man," more than 70 Indian guest workers rallied at the White House gates Monday in a cold rain to demand fundamental changes in the nation's guest worker program, which business interests want to expand.

They also want a congressional investigation of their former employer, Signal International, a marine construction company they say held them in modern-day forced labor in its Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard.

Jagpal Yadav, one of the former workers at the shipyard, said the workers were exploited first by unscrupulous recruiters and then by the company.

"In India, we paid $20,000 to recruiters who promised permanent residency and citizenship," he said. "When we came here, we found out all the promises were false--there were never any green cards. There were just prison-like conditions. We lived as if in a jail, 24 people to a room. We had no place to sit or stand. We slept in bunkbeds stacked on top of each other. The man in the top bunk couldn't even sit up straight because his head would hit the ceiling. The conditions were degrading."

Sony Suleka, an organizer with the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity and a former Signal worker, said the company "took away our hopes and dreams and shattered us mentally. Now we are asking the U.S. government to investigate Signal and put an end to this system of modern-day slavery."

The action at the White House kicked off a week of meetings the immigrant workers will hold with members of Congress and staff, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

On March 18, the workers embarked on a "satyagraha," or truth action, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, traveling from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., to reveal the truth of the guest worker program.

As part of their journey, workers met with allies from the African American and labor rights communities in key sites in the civil rights struggle, including Jackson, Miss.; Selma, Ala.; Atlanta; and Greensboro, N.C. The "I Am A Man" signs the workers carried in front of the White House echoed those carried by striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed 40 years ago this week helping them in their struggle to gain recognition for their union.

Guest workers typically are deeply in debt by the time they arrive in the United States, where the companies that hire them often charge additional fees for boarding, food and expenses. The workers charge the recruiters and the employer threatened, coerced and defrauded them into paying additional money and altered contracts, which they forced the workers to accept under threat of losing their passports and visas. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States, relates that it is not unusual for guest workers to pay huge fees to obtain a seasonal guest worker position.

Yadav said the workers, who, along with other immigrant rights activists, briefed congressional staff Tuesday on the need to reform the guest worker program, want Congress to make fundamental changes to the H-2B system.

After the staff briefing, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said in a statement, "We must make certain that there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect all workers -- both U.S. workers and guest workers -- from exploitation. Strong labor standards that are vigorously enforced are essential to prevent employers from driving down wages and hurting our economy. Until we have stronger protections for both U.S. workers and foreign guest workers, I cannot support increasing the size of the guest worker program."

Last week, the workers met with the Indian ambassador to brief him on their struggle. At a rally near the embassy in Washington, D.C., former worker Aniesh Thankachan gave a tearful account of the pain of being separated from his family.

"You see these pictures? These are our families," he said. "They are the reason we came here. We were told that we would be able to bring our families on permanent residency visas. Once we came here, we learned that these promises were false. I cry at night. I can't tell my family what's going on. I listen to my children on the phone and I weep. Our families are the reason we're here. They are why we are on this satyagraha."

Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, who helped the workers to organize, said foremen, supervisors, company officials and security officials routinely subject workers to, at best, abuse, and at worse, to human trafficking and forced labor.

"One of the reasons we're going to Congress is to tell them the guest worker program has turned into nothing more but a legally sanctioned labor trafficking program," Soni said. "Across the Gulf Coast hundreds of men like these are being held in conditions that anywhere else would be called forced labor."

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