Workers’ statement on suspending hunger strike – ‘We have only begun to fight’

11 06 2008

“We Have Only Begun to Fight”

Collective statement by the Indian Workers’ Congress, read by Sabulal Vijayan

June 11, 2008

Today, after 29 days, we are suspending a hunger strike that has brought us more power than any group of H2B guest workers in the United States has ever had. We began our fast on May 14 in front of the White House to expose the ugly reality of the guest worker program. We demanded action against the criminal trafficking ring of Signal International and its US and Indian recruiters. We demanded that the Department of Justice grant us freedom from the terror of deportation and give us continued presence in the United States so that we can participate in the criminal trafficking investigation against Signal International.

Because of the power of our hunger strike, 18 members of US Congress have written to the Department of Justice to demand continued presence on our behalf. The chairs of two committees in the US House of Representatives have also urged the Department of Justice to take this case of human trafficking very seriously. Congressman Dennis Kucinich has committed to holding hearings into abuses of guest workers by Signal International and companies like it. Our allies from Jobs With Justice and the labor movement have written more than 9,000 letters to US Congress on our behalf.

We have the confidence to suspend our hunger strike today because we have faith in these allies to fight alongside us until the traffickers are brought to justice.

But our victory today is not yet complete. On March 6 we took courage in our hands and escaped Signal’s labor camps. We could have disappeared, but we chose to come forward to report the company to the US Department of Justice. We sacrificed our ability to work and be with our families for the sake of bringing Signal and its recruiters to justice. We risked our lives with a hunger strike for the sake of future workers.

Why did we do this? Because we thought we were in the land of liberty, because we had faith in the Department of Justice. We expected the DOJ to follow the laws that Congress has enacted to protect people like us. We demanded what the US law demands: that survivors of human trafficking be given the legal protections necessary to pursue justice without fear.

But the DOJ ignored us. They refused to act on our behalf. Our requests for basic protections under the law, for continued presence in the US, were ignored. We were subjected to surveillance operations by immigration authorities, and humiliating and terrifying interviews.

Because of the Department of Justice, our lives are on hold. We are paralysed. We live in constant terror of deportation. We cannot work. We cannot see our families. We cannot provide for our families. We are listening to our children grow up over long distance phone calls. We have not been able to attend the funerals of our mothers and fathers in India. Because of the DOJ’s inaction, our lives are in limbo.

Meanwhile Signal International is not on hold. Their business is not in limbo. They continue their operations in the Gulf Coast, they continue to get government contracts and make profits while we sit paralyzed. The Department of Justice lets a criminal trafficker carry on its business – while the workers who had the courage to report Signal crimes are treated like criminals.

But others are listening to our call for justice. Eighteen US Congressmen and three committee chairs have heard this call and supported us. Organized labor has heard this call and supported us. The civil rights community has heard this call and supported us. Faith leaders have heard this call and supported us.

We have faith in our allies and place our hopes in their hands. We believe that with the help of US Congress, organized labor, and civil rights and faith leaders, our power will continue to grow until the Department of Justice until it offers us the protection we need to bring the traffickers to justice and to protect all future workers.

So after 29 days we suspend our hunger strike – to give the Department of Justice time to wake up to the calls of 18 members of Congress, and leaders in the religious, civil rights, and faith community. We are waiting.





Day 29 – Hunger strike suspended after huge political gains

11 06 2008

Congressman Dennis Kucinich speaks before an audience of 150 workers and supporters today at the Department of Justice rally. Details here:

NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE

www.neworleansworkerjustice.org

*** JUNE 11, 2008 – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ***

Indian trafficking survivors suspend hunger strike on Day 29 after huge political gains

Workers celebrate support, vow to fight on as allies hold solidarity rallies in 10 US cities

WASHINGTON, DC – On Wednesday, June 11, 2008, about 150 Indian labor trafficking survivors and supporters rallied at the US Department of Justice headquarters, where the workers suspended their hunger strike on Day 29 after an unprecedented outpouring of support from US Congressmen and leaders from labor, civil rights, and religious communities.

“Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act because we recognized that modern day slavery exists and that workers trafficked into the United States should be able to place their faith in the United States justice system,” US Congressman Dennis Kucinich said at the rally, one week after he and 17 Congressional colleagues sent a letter to the Department of Justice urging legal protections for the workers while it investigates their case. “Today, we must make sure we don’t betray their faith in us.”

Indian Member of Parliament S.K. Kharventhan (Tamil Nadu, Congress Party) also pledged his support to the workers after flying from India to meet with them and attend the rally, saying: “This issue needs to be taken up as an international crime in India. I pledge my support to you. Meeting with you personally has opened my eyes to the seriousness of the problem and the fact that the Indian government should help you bring the traffickers to justice.”

“After 29 days, we are suspending a hunger strike that has brought us more power than any group of H2B guest workers in the United States has ever had,” said Sabulal Vijayan, an organizer with the Indian Workers’ Congress. “We have the confidence to suspend our hunger strike today because we have faith in these allies to fight alongside us until the traffickers are brought to justice.”

The vast support for the workers’ fight for justice against the labor trafficking chain of Signal International and its recruiters was clear from the speakers at Wednesday’s rally, which included:

  • US Congressman Dennis Kucinich
  • Indian Member of Parliament S.K. Kharventhan, Tamil Nadu, Congress Party
  • Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickeled and Dimed
  • Rev. Graylan Hagler, Senior Minister, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
  • Jon Hiatt, General Counsel, AFL-CIO
  • John Cavanagh, director, Institute of Policy Studies
  • John Flynn, President, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers
  • Sarita Gupta, Executive Director, Jobs With Justice
  • Indian Workers’ Congress organizer Sabulal Vijayan
  • Saket Soni, director, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice

In addition, labor rights group Jobs With Justice held solidarity actions in 10 cities across the US on Wednesday: Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Portland, OR; Knoxville, TN; Richmond, VA; Chicago, IL; Salt Lake City, UT; New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; and San Francisco, CA. Last week, Jobs With Justice members wrote over 9,000 letters to US Congress in support of the workers.

“But our victory today is not yet complete,” Vijayan added, referring to the Department of Justice’s failure to release the labor trafficking survivors from the terror of deportation by granting them continued presence in the US, as requested by Rep. Kucinich and his 17 colleagues.

We live in constant terror of deportation. We cannot work. We cannot see our families. We cannot provide for our families. We are listening to our children grow up over long distance phone calls. Because of the DOJ’s inaction, our lives are in limbo,” Vijayan said.

After the workers broke the fast in a ceremony blessed by Rev. Graylan Hagler and other faith leaders, a delegation of ten workers’ allies went into the Department of Justice and met with Constituent Relations Associate Director Julie Warren, who agreed to set a meeting between the workers and the DoJ Civil Rights Division for the week of June 16th.

“Scripture says: ‘Is this not the fast which I choose to loose the bonds of wickedness, and to let the oppressed go free?’” Rev. Hagland said, before he and other clergy distributed pieces of bread to the workers. “That is what we’re standing here to do, to loose the bonds of wickedness, and to let the oppressed go free.”

The hunger strike 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. A total of 20 workers participated in the strike, five of whom were hospitalized. One of them, Paul Konar, fasted for 23 straight days before being stopped by health problems.

The workers escaped Signal’s labor camps in March 2008 and made a 10-day “journey for justice,” largely on foot, from New Orleans to Washington, DC. They launched their hunger strike on May 14 to demand temporary legal status in the US, Congressional hearings into abuses of guest workers, and talks between the US and Indian governments to protect future guest workers.

“The Department of Justice, like the Indian government, has remained cold while these workers have taken extraordinary risks to open the world’s eyes to the reality of guest worker programs,” said Saket Soni, workers’ advocate and director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “This suspension of the hunger strike gives them both one last chance to fulfill their responsibility to combat the brutal reality of human trafficking.”

The Indian Workers’ Congress is an affiliate of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

Read statements and see pictures from the rally at our blog: nolaworkerscenter.wordpress.com.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, Media Director, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, spboykewich@gmail.com, US Mob. +1-504-655-0876

www.neworleansworkerjustice.org





Day 28 – Come to the rally — in any one of 11 cities!

10 06 2008

Tomorrow’s the big day. Over 100 workers will be rallying at the Department of Justice HQ in DC at noon, with hundreds of allies expected to come out in support of them, and a powerful list of speakers including:

  • Rep. Dennis Kucinich (schedule allowing)
  • Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickeled and Dimed
  • Jon Hiatt, AFL-CIO General Counsel
  • John Flynn, president, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers
  • John Cavanagh, director, Institute for Policy Studies
  • Rev. Sandra Harrelson, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
  • Members of the Indian Workers Congress and Staff of New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice

What’s more, national allies from Jobs With Justice and other organizations will be holding solidarity actions in 10 US cities: Boston, MA; Portland, OR; Knoxville, TN; Richmond, VA; Chicago, IL; Salt Lake City, UT; New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; and San Francisco, CA.

If you live in one of these cities and want to come out and support the Indian workers’ fight for justice for all workers, call your local Jobs With Justice office to get details!





Day 25 – Hunger strike in the New York Times!

7 06 2008

Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Click here to read “Workers on Hunger Strike Say They Were Misled on Visas,” the excellent story that appeared in today’s New York Times about the hunger strike and the 18-month struggle for justice that preceded it. An excerpt:

WASHINGTON — About a dozen metalworkers from India staged the fourth week of a hunger strike here this week, camped under a shade tree on Embassy Row.

The workers, who walked off jobs in Gulf Coast shipyards in early March, say they were victims of human trafficking when they were brought to the United States under a temporary guest worker program. The hunger strike is meant to pressure federal officials, and comes as Congress is debating an expansion of the guest worker program, known as H-2B for the type of temporary visa the workers receive.

The Indian workers say they were deceived by Signal International and labor recruiters when they paid as much as $20,000 for visas they believed would allow them to work and live permanently with their families in the United States. In fact, the H-2B visas are for short-term contracts.

“Everyone has a dream,” said one of the protesters, Paul Konar, a 54-year-old worker from the Indian state of Kerala, speaking in Hindi through a translator. “If we could come here legally to live with our families, that was my dream.”





Day 23 – Hunger strike strongman hospitalized

5 06 2008

After an extraordinary 23 days without food, hunger strike strongman Paul Konar awoke Thursday with a weak pulse and extreme abdominal pain that worsened towards noon.

“Today, after 23 days without food, I am in a very weak physical condition, and my friends and supporters are very concerned about my health. The others who started the hunger strike with me on May 14 were forced to leave after 8 or 9 days due to health problems. I thank God that he preserved me for the last 23 days,” Paul said shortly before fellow workers called the ambulance that took him to George Washington University Medical Center.

Somebody needed to do something for others, so we, the Indian Worker Congress started this fight for justice. I took this risk of holding a hunger strike to achieve justice in this country for all people,” Paul said.

“Day by day my confidence is growing because I have been doing good for others. What I did is nothing compared to the sacrifice of Mahatma Gandhi, but I did what I can. If it should bring some happiness to others in the world, that is enough for me.”

Tributes from US civil rights and labor leaders poured in upon news of Paul’s hospitalization.

“Against steep odds, Paul Konar and his fellow hunger strikers have taken up the fight against human trafficking, worker exploitation, and the systemic problems with the H2B guest worker program,” said John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, which represents 10 million American workers. “All workers owe a debt to these courageous workers, and particularly to Paul Konar.”

“Mr. Konar’s remarkable strength and courage have taught us the true meaning of fighting for social justice,” said Marielena Hincapie, director of programs with the National Immigration Law Center. “This historic hunger strike has inspired many of us in the U.S. to make even greater sacrifices in order to achieve social change.”

Paul’s fellow workers and hunger strikers vowed to continue his fight for justice until they are granted legal protections to participate in a federal investigation into the traffickers.

“Here in the most powerful country in the world, a 54-year-old man named Paul Konar went 23 days without food, following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi in the 21st century,” said Rajan Pazhambalakode, a former Signal Worker and organizer with the Indian Workers’ Congress. “We are carrying on this mission and continuing the hunger strike until we achieve justice in this country. ‘We shall overcome.’”





Rep. Jim McDermott vows his support!

4 06 2008

NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE
www.neworleansworkerjustice.org

*** 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: anannya48@gmail.com

US Contact: Stephen Boykewich – Media Director, NOWCRJ

+1-504-655-0876 (US mobile phone); email: spboykewich@gmail.com





Day 22 – Workers’ message of thanks on receiving major human rights award

4 06 2008

Statement by the Indian Workers Congress

Upon receipt of the Institute for Policy Studies’ 2008 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award

June 4, 2008

We are very grateful for this award, which is a great victory for our cause. We would like to thank the members of the committee who granted us this award, and with them, all the allies in the US who have supported us with donations of their time, energy, money, food, housing, and many other things.

Above all, we thank God for the chance to let the people of the world know about our struggle for justice.

We suffered under a system that abuses guest workers—not only in America, but in many countries. This suffering gave us the chance to form the Indian Workers’ Congress, and this award lets us show the power of its unity to the world. It gives us power from our suffering.

We told the world from the beginning that we’re not fighting for ourselves, and we’re not fighting for Indians. We’re fighting for all who come to the United States believing in liberty and justice, and we are proud of that fight. When we started our struggle, our hands were empty. We had lost everything, but we kept fighting, and we learned an important lesson: United, we have power; divide, we do not.

This award shows that the world recognizes our struggle is doing good for others. We are grateful to have received this recognition because it will inspire others to fight for justice in the future.

We took a courageous step in coming forward to fight for justice, and it should be a lesson for all the companies that exploit workers the way Signal International exploited us: Don’t try to trap anyone else. The world is watching. We will fight for justice, and we will win.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, Media Director, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice

US Mob. +1-504-655-0876, spboykewich@gmail.com, www.neworleansworkerjustice.org








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