Satyagraha reaches George Bush’s doorstep

31 03 2008

FROM: New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice

803 Baronne St., New Orleans, LA 70113

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich – (504) 655-0876

*** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ***

Indian human trafficking survivors tear up guest worker visas at White House rally,

demand Congressional investigation of US employer

WASHINGTON, DC – On Monday, March 31, nearly 100 Indian satyagrahis who broke a human trafficking chain earlier this month marched to the White House and tore up copies of their H2B visas in a symbolic rejection of the guest worker program used to traffic them to the US—a program President George W. Bush is eager to expand.

Chanting “All the way to the White House!” and “We want justice!” the satyagrahis gathered at the White House gates under rainy skies and demanded a Congressional investigation of their former employer Signal International, a marine construction company that held them in forced labor and is already the subject of a criminal human trafficking investigation by the Department of Justice.

“The company took away our hopes and dreams and shattered us mentally,” said Sony Suleka, an organizer with the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity and a former Signal worker. “Now we are asking the esteemed US government to investigate Signal and put an end to this system of modern-day slavery.”

Sunita Gupta, national director of Jobs With Justice, one of the workers’ many US allies, said: “We are standing in solidarity with these workers and asking the White House and Congress for a real investigation of Signal International, as well as a just immigration system that does not link the US economy to exploitable foreign workers while displacing poor and working-class American workers.”

The satyagrahis are part of a group of over 500 Indian welders and pipe fitters who paid approximately $20,000 apiece to US and Indian recruiters for false promises of permanent residency in the US. Instead they were held in forced labor by Northrop Grumman subcontractor Signal International on ten-month temporary H2B guest worker visas in Gulf Coast shipyards under deplorable conditions. The Department of Justice has opened a human trafficking investigation into the case, and US Congressman George Miller has demanding detailed documentation about the case from Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.

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

“It’s time that US Congress understood that US companies are using this guest worker program as a legal sanction for forced labor,” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, which helped the workers organize. “Signal’s abuses reveal the ugly reality of the US guest worker program.”

The workers arrived in DC on Wednesday after a nine-day journey from New Orleans that saw a surge in support from clergy, organized labor and African American community leaders.





Ambassador action in the news

29 03 2008

Thursday’s rally and the meeting with the ambassador got excellent national news coverage from US and Indian media, including the AP article that the above picture comes from. It was carried by at least 50 newspapers on Friday, including the International Herald Tribune.

Other articles of note:

One other article that deserves far more attention: Vijay Prashad’s outstanding analysis piece about this campaign and the guest worker program at large in India’s weekly Frontline magazine. Check it out!





How to help

28 03 2008

 

We get more calls and emails every day with people asking “How are the workers supporting themselves?” — and just as many asking: “How can we help?”

Much of the workers’ lodging and many meals have been provided by generous church supporters such as St. Stephen’s Church of Washington, DC, Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community in Greensboro, NC, and Rev. Timothy McDonald of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA.

Still, expenses for food, lodging, and transportation are enormous, and the fund the workers have pooled their own money into goes only part of the way. If you would like to join the workers’ growing number of supporters, you can contribute to their struggle by sending a check payable to the National Immigration Law Center with “NOWCRJ – Indian guest workers’ campaign” written in the subject line. Checks should be mailed to:

National Immigration Law Center
3435 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 2850
Los Angeles, CA 90010

If people have any questions about contributing, they can contact Colette Tippy of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice at 504-881-6550 or workerscenter@gmail.com.





Satyagraha TV in DC

28 03 2008

Yesterday’s action and meeting with the Indian ambassador brought a great of amount of coverage, including TV reports viewable online from CNN India, BBC World News, and Times of India TV.

Check them out:

  • BBC World News TV – Indian men in US ‘slave’ protest
  • CNN India – Mississippi Protest: Indians sue American employer
  • Times of India TV – Ronen Sen assures ‘exploited’ workers
  • We’ll post links to print and radio coverage shortly.





    More on the big meeting

    28 03 2008


    It was an incredible scene: over 100 Indian workers, allies, and press packed into the lobby of the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC. Embassy staff had set up a microphone for the ambassador, whom you see here listening to Saket Soni, and had wireless mics for workers and allies to speak. The ambassador started with a long statement saying the embassy’s doors were always open for Indian citizens, India was founded as constitutional state on respect for the individual, and this should only be the beginning of a dialogue between the workers and the embassy.

    Sabulal Vijayan responded with an account of how he and nearly 600 other workers were trafficked to work for Signal, then set the tone for the next 2 1/2 hours with a question: Where were you when the company came after me and the other organizers with armed guards in March 2007 to lock us up and deport us? Where were you when they drove me to a suicide attempt when they chased me into my trailer bathroom and I slit my wrist to commit suicide? Where were you while I lay in a hospital bed for three days?

    About a dozen of the workers held photographs of the loved ones they have been apart from for 18 months now: sons, daughers, wives. At the rally in Dupont circle before the meeting with the ambassador, Aniesh Thankachan gave a fierce, tearful account of the pain of being separated from them:

    “You see these pictures? These are our familes. 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.”





    Satyagrahis grill ambassador in 3-hour session

    27 03 2008

    Forgive the simple press release — details and photos to follow. But for now, friends:

    NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE

     *** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ***

    100 satyagrahis grill Indian Ambassador during three-hour meeting

    Diplomat falls short of concrete timelines but pledges moral support

    WASHINGTON, DC – After a nine-day satyagraha that began in New Orleans, nearly 100 Indian human trafficking survivors packed the central hall of the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, on Thursday for a three-hour meeting with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen, along with over a dozen of the workers’ advocates and major international news media.

    Though the workers and the ambassador agreed that the meeting was “a conversation, not a confrontation,” the atmosphere was tense at times as the workers confronted Ambassador Sen over comments in the press attributed to embassy officials that referred to “the stupidity of greedy and semi-literate workers.” They also pressed him for a commitment that Indian officials would always put the workers first in any future handling of the case, rather than the company that held them in forced labor, Signal International.

    “We’re hoping that before any action is taken interfacing with company representatives, with government representatives, with any other representatives of any other interests…in this issue, either here or in India, you will communicate with us first. Do we have that assurance?” asked Saket Soni, a workers’ advocate and director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

    “Yes. I have heard you and I have heard everyone here loud and clear,” Ambassador Sen said.

    The workers expressed disappointment with Ambassador Sen’s inability to provide a concrete timeline on actions to open US-Indian talks on protecting future Indian workers from abuses of the guest worker program. The ambassador also refused to advocate for the workers with the US Department of Justice and other US agencies, claiming that protocol forbade him from doing so.

    “We are not satisfied because the ambassador is locked in protocols. But human trafficking does not follow protocols,” Sabulal Vijayan, former Signal worker and organizer with the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, said after the meeting. “The company and the recruiters that exploited us were not doing things by the book. Human trafficking shatters all protocols and requires a response that does the same.”

    Rajan Pazhambalakode, another organizer and former Signal worker, said: “What we need is action, not just symbolic reassurances. We are going to continue to work to arrive at a timeline for action from the ambassador.”

    The 100 workers who met with the ambassador were among over 500 Indian welders and pipe fitters who paid approximately $20,000 apiece to US and Indian recruiters for false promises of permanent residency in the US, and instead were held in forced labor by Northrop Grumman subcontractor Signal International on ten-month temporary H2B guest worker visas in Gulf Coast shipyards under deplorable conditions. The Department of Justice has opened a human trafficking investigation into the case, and US Congressman George Miller has demanding detailed documentation about the case from Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.

    Allies and advocates for the workers from the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, South Asian Americans Leading Together, Jobs With Justice, and Southern Poverty Law Center attended the meeting.

    The ranks of the workers’ allies and supporters have surged during the nine-day satyagraha from New Orleans to Washington, DC, and also include legendary civil rights leader Hollis Watkins, the National Immigration Law Center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute, the Low-Wage Migrant Worker Coalition, the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, Rev. Timothy McDonald’s First Iconium Baptist Church, Rev. Nelson Johnson’s Beloved Community, Amnesty International, and numerous other groups.

    The workers plan to remain in Washington, DC, for seven days, during which they hope to meet with key Congressional decision-makers on labor and immigration policy. On Monday at 11:30 a.m. EST, they will hold a rally in front of the White House with local allies Jobs With Justice.

    The workers’ experiences during their journey to and stay in DC are being detailed in a text and photo blog at 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

    www.neworleansworkerjustice.org





    We’re in Washington!

    27 03 2008

     

    See you here, at the Dupont Circle fountain, at 12 noon, Thursday, Mar. 27. The satyagrahis will gather with friends, allies, and press, share their stories, then head over to a mass meeting with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen at1 p.m. Come out and support the workers at the start of their week in DC!