NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE
*** JUNE 4, 2008 – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ***
Top US Congressman for Indian affairs vows to help Indian hunger strikers on Day 23 of fast
Workers tell of Indian government inaction in meeting with Representative Jim McDermott
WASHINGTON, DC – The top US Congressman for US-Indian relations, Rep. Jim McDermott, vowed to support a group of Indian labor trafficking survivors on Day 23 of their hunger strike for justice after hearing during a meeting with them Wednesday how the Indian government had neglected them.
“Representative McDermott asked in great detail about our struggle against the labor traffickers and the response of the Indian government and the Indian Embassy,” said Sabulal Vijayan, an organizer with the Indian Workers’ Congress and Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity. “We told him that if this were a problem of the rich, the Indian government would act, but since it is a problem of the poor, they do nothing.”
As Co-Chairman of the India Caucus in the US House of Representatives, Rep. McDermott is an important voice in shaping US policy toward India.
The Indian government has refused to support the workers since their hunger strike for justice began on May 14 in view of the White House. A delegation of workers was driven from the Indian Embassy that day (see photos at www.flickr.com/photos/nolaworkerscenter), and embassy officials made no contact with the workers until the first hunger striker was hospitalized on May 21. Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen finally bowed to pressure and met with the workers on May 28, but refused to visit the hunger strike site and claimed never to have seen the statement of the hunger strike’s goals that the workers delivered two weeks earlier.
“Rep. McDermott told us he had signed a Congressional letter in support of the workers to the Department of Justice, and said he would press his colleagues to do the same,” said Rajan Pazhambalakode, also an organizer with the Indian Workers’ Congress and the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity. “We also asked him to write to Ambassador Sen protesting the Indian government’s egregious failure to support its NRIs.”
The meeting followed nearly 18 months of organizing by the workers, who paid US and Indian recruiters up to $20,000 apiece for false promises of permanent residency and green cards. Instead they received 10-month temporary H2B guest worker visas and worked at Signal’s Gulf Coast shipyards under deplorable conditions.
The workers escaped Signal’s labor camps in March 2008, made a 10-day satyagraha from New Orleans to Washington, DC, and on May 14, began a hunger strike for justice. They are demanding continued presence in the US to participate in an official investigation into their case, US Congressional hearings into abuses of guest workers, and Indian government pressure on the US to protect future guest workers.
Earlier this week, the workers won the prestigious 2008 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award for their “courageous stand against … modern-day slavery in the world’s richest nation.”
On June 11, 2008, the hunger strike will culminate in a major rally at the Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, DC. The workers will call for a response to their demands for continued presence in the US to help bring the traffickers to justice, and for protections for future workers.
“It is upsetting to say the least that while US Congressmen are coming out in support of Indian workers, their own government officials continue to wash their hands of them,” said Saket Soni, an advocate for the workers and director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
The Indian Workers’ Congress is an affiliate of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
Follow the hunger strike on our text and photo blog: www.neworleansworkerjustice.org.
India contact: Anannya Bhattacharjee
+91-9810970627 (India mobile phone); email: firstname.lastname@example.org
US Contact: Stephen Boykewich – Media Director, NOWCRJ
+1-504-655-0876 (US mobile phone); email: email@example.com