Gandhi Joins with Martin Luther King: Jobs with Justice National Conference

Here is one ongoing story of struggle by workers against exploitative corporate globalization. It is part of the rich tapestry presented at the Jobs with Justice National Conference in Providence, which assembled several hundred activists from forty local coalitions that campaign for workers’ rights. These delegates, diverse in age, race and culture, shared their organizing experiences and successes, of perseverance in the face of adversity and corporate and political villany. This struggle by Indian workers against their exploitation by the U.S. government’s H2B “guest worker” program is continuing.

“Guest Workers” Replace African-Americans at Signal Shipyard

After Hurricane Katrina forced many African-American workers to flee their flooded communities on the Gulf Coast, and politicians failed in their elementary responsibilities to help their communities recover, corporations based in the area found the Federal Government acutely responsive to their needs to replace their scattered workers. One tool was the US government guest worker program known as H2B.

Signal International operates two shipyards in Pascagoula, MS and four in Port Arthur and Orange, TX. Signal makes the huge floating oil rigs for the offshore fields in the Gulf. Claiming that it could no longer recruit enough skilled craftsmen in Mississippi, in 2006 the company used the labor recruiting firm Global Resources to recruit Indian workers to fill first-class welder and fitter positions. By the end of 2006 there were over 300 skilled Indian workers at the Pascagoula shipyard, and the company had extended the H2B program to its Texas shipyards.

The Department of Homeland Security, so inept in relief and recovery efforts in New Orleans, found the resources to provide background checks on the Indian applicants, each of whom paid recruiters from Global Resources between $15,000 and $20,000 for the privilege of working for Signal International in America. The recruiters promised them permanent jobs, green cards, and eventually the right to bring their families to America. To raise the money the Indian workers borrowed large sums and often sold their homes. But when they got to America, they found out that all they were guaranteed was a temporary ten-month visa. The housing Signal provided them in Pascagoula consisted of a bunk-house, for which $1050 a month was deducted from their paychecks. According to a worker, that entitled him to three meals, and a bunk-bed in a room with 24 workers and two toilets.

Human Trafficking

So far this is an all-too-familiar story of the exploitation and victimization of migrant workers, not very different from the fate of tens of millions of victims of a version of 21st century slavery that tarnishes work from China through the Gulf Emirates, from the Ivory Coast through Europe to the Americas. A world where global capital is freed from restraints on its mobility while workers are processed through ever more stringent bureaucratic channels and fenced off by ever higher border walls is rife for the crudest forms of worker exploitation.

The Victims Organize

But the story of the Indian workers in Mississippi has not ended. Strangers in a strange land, for the most part speaking no English, they chose to play a role not that of the poster child for victimization, but of the human being fighting for dignity.

In May 2007, six of the Indian workers, including Sabulal Vijayan and Joseph Jacob, were held captive by armed guards in the shipyard and later fired for organizing against their mistreatment. The other three hundred Indian workers briefly went on strike in support of the six organizers, but were intimidated back to work. Holders of H2B visas are not permitted to seek other jobs, and are liable for immediate deportation back to India if they lose their jobs at Signal, which would be disastrous because of the debts the workers had incurred to pay the recruiters.

Fighting against despair (one attempted suicide), the fired workers made contact with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), a coalition of labor and civil rights groups that had championed the rights of Latino immigrant workers before and after Katrina. Lacking the linguistic skills for communicating with the Hindi-, Tamil- and Malayam- speaking Indian workers, MIRA called in Hindi-speaking organizer Saket Soni from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice. The workers began to organize under the aegis of the New Orleans-based Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity.

Heirs to Gandhi and Martin Luther King March Together

On March 6, 2008, nearly a hundred Indian workers walked off the job in Pascalousa, sang “We Shall Overcome” in their native languages, and tossed off their hard hats as a symbol of their renouncing “human trafficking.” For this historical moment, the heirs of Gandhi began marching with those of Martin Luther King. A few days later, they began an eight-day journey through key sites of the civil rights struggle (Jackson, Selma, Atlanta, Greensboro) to Washington, DC, to demonstrate against the abuses and threatened expansion of the H2B guest worker program. Everywhere they carried the signs DIGNITY and I AM A MAN.

Speaking on their behalf, Saket Soni said: “It’s time for Congress to wake up to the fact that the guest worker program is a path to an American nightmare.” The workers demanded that the US and Indian governments negotiate an agreement on guest workers that reflects the interests of workers rather than merely that of recruiters and corporations.

A dozen Indian workers and their leaders together with Saket Soni attended the Jobs with Justice National Conference. Their inspirational story was a centerpiece of a major conference thread on organizing immigrant workers, and on the link between forced migration and corporate globalization. Far beyond any mere abstractions or ideological linkages, the Indian workers and their supporters embodied a powerful relationship with historical roots in non-violent struggle across borders.

We cannot know the outcome of this particular struggle, which faces overwhelming odds. The struggle of these workers is not about compensation for themselves as individuals. They have already lost everything material, though the value they have achived by standing up for their dignity as human beings is beyond calculation. They hope that it will benefit future “guest workers” from India and elsewhere. But maybe even more it will help some Americans “get over” their problem with seeing migrant workers as enemies of American workers.

Later this month many of the workers may begin a hunger strike, and organizers have promised there will be ways for us to support them. We must take our own responsibility by joining guest workers in forcing Congress to totally revamp a guest worker program that is the 21st century version of the slave trade. TalkingUnion will provide updates.

Signal International Admits Abuses by Labor Recruiters, Calls for Reforms in Guest Worker Program

The workers have already won a victory that I discovered only when I googled the Signal International web-site. In March 2008 I had accessed the site and read a company press release dated 3 January 2007, which gave the company’s perspective and provided some of the historical background for this article. It also contained a quote from Signal President and CEO Dick Marler defending the hiring of Indian workers on the Gulf Coast: “Workers from India have a reputation for being pleasant and hard-working. I believe they will contribute positively to the Company’s growth and to the local economies.”

Today that release is not longer available on the site, and has been replaced by two recent company press releases. One, dated 27 March 2008. calls on Congress to mandate a licensing requirement for the H2B Temporary Worker Program. Signal International President and CEO Richard Marler announced that Signal will no longer hire new temporary workers under the H2B Program until it is reformed to better protect foreign workers and U.S. companies that were misled by recruiters.

Signal also said that it will also pursue claims against Global Resources, its principal Michael Pol, other recruiters, and immigration attorney Malvern Burnett for charging the temporary workers excessive fees and making false promises about the green card process. Signal also promised to help its current temporary workers get the visas necessary to remain at the company.

On 5 May 2008, Signal issued a “Recruitment of Foreign Nationals Fraud Advisory.” Stating that Signal had recently received information of fraudulent activity abroad in Signal’s name in the recruitment of foreign nationals for H-2B visas, and was taking all measures possible to end this fraudulent activity including working with law enforcement and regulatory authorities. Signal advised that it is not currently recruiting abroad for foreign workers for any of its facilities, and that any such offer should be reported to local authorities, U.S. consultates, and Signal as fraudulent.

It may in fact be true that Signal International, which had not used the H2B program previously, was unaware of the excessive fees and false promises of recruiters from Global Resources in India. By forcing Signal to issue these statements, the heroic struggle of the Indian workers has already won a victory for all guest workers being recruited in India.

4 Responses

  1. […] from India who are fighting against their exploitation under the H2B program (see May 8 article “Gandhi Joins with Martin Luther King“) have begun a hunger strike.  They are […]

  2. Placard saying ‘I AM A MAN’..,is painful.Inspite of all talk of equality at all levels, man has to suffer to that extent.
    nisha bala tyagi

  3. You’ve awesome thing here.

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