This was the scene at the end of March when after a long, grim silence, Indian Ambassador to the US Ronen Ren finally met with the workers who were brave enough to escape from the labor camps of Signal International and make a ten-day pilgrimage in the the footsteps of US freedom fighters from New Orleans to Washington, DC. The ambassador’s main messages then were: “I am bound by protocol,” and “My doors are always open to you.”
The hunger strikers found out on May 14 that the latter was anything but true. A workers’ delegation visited the embassy after the launch of the hunger strike that day and was thrown out and refused a meeting with the ambassador, though he then hurried by them and rushed away in a limousine while as they waited on the steps.
Nine days and four hospitalizations later, the embassy has indicated it is ready for a meeting. On Friday, the workers delivered the following letter to the ambassador setting the stage for the meeting to come:
May 23, 2008
Dear Ambassador Ronan Sen,
The Indian Workers Congress represents 550 Indian Nationals who were trafficked to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Texas to work for Signal International, LLC As you know, we are now on Day Ten of our hunger strike.
We ask for three simple things through our hunger strike:
- SAFETY. We ask for continued presence in the United States so that we may remain in the US to participate in a federal anti-trafficking investigation, as stipulated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. We ask that all surveillance of our activities be halted immediately.
- PUNISHMENT FOR SIGNAL AND ITS RECRUITERS. US Federal authorities must prosecute the Signal and the US recruiters. The Indian government must prosecute the Indian recruiters.
- SYSTEMIC CHANGE. Congress must hold hearings on Signal International and companies in the Gulf Coast, and their use of the federal Guest Worker program as a legally sanctioned vehicle for exploitation. The US and Indian goverments must talk bilaterally to ensure that future workers do not face such exploitation.
We want the Indian government to take clear action to pressure US authorities to grant us continued presence. We understand that the Indian government fears the US government; and that this fear may stop you from putting pressure on behalf of your own nationals. We have overcome our fear, and spoken directly to members of Congress, and to federal authorities. It is your responsibility to do the same.
On March 27, we held a meeting with you, which included 70 of our members. During this meeting we explained our case in great detail.
You advised us during this meeting that we should speak directly to you regarding our problems. We have sent several letters and all the evidence of our case to your embassy as well as Minister Vayalar Ravi’s office.
On May 14th Indian Workers Congress Representatives visited your office and were refused a meeting with you by the staff of your office. While we spoke with Mr. Sinha you swiftly passed by, completely ignoring our delegation, in direct contridiction to your earlier statement. “My doors are always open to all of you any time.”
May 17th through May 19th we were in front of our Embassy on the fourth, fifth, and sixth day of our hunger strike which is now going into its 9th day as you held your open house to feast as we continue to starve for justice. During these three days we had no response from your office regarding our case.
Finally, only when one of the hunger strikers, Mr. Christopher Glory, was hospitalized, your Embassy responded by calling our representative. We learned that it is necessary for an Indian worker to be hopitalized before the Indian Embassy cares about issues as serious as human trafficking.
We now ask that you, and the Indian Government, pressure the Department of Justice to grant us continued presence in the US. We suggest that you exert this pressure through members of Congress.
We have already called your representative Mr. Rahul Rasgotra to ask for an appointment. We also ask that you visit the hunger strikers immediately.
Representatives of the Indian Workers Congress.
And since the hunger strike site is moving on Saturday, May 24, from Capitol Hill back to the Mahatma Gandhi statue in front of the embassy, they’ll be hard to ignore.