On June 11, Indian workers who say they were forced into involuntary servitude under the H-2B visa program rallied in front of the Department of Justice (DOJ) headquarters in Washington to demand that they be allowed to remain in the US to participate in a DOJ investigation into labor trafficking. A group of the workers had been carrying out a hunger strike in Washington since May 14, demanding congressional hearings into abuses of guest workers, talks between the US and Indian governments to protect future guest workers, and “continued presence” status under the Trafficking and Victims Protection Act so they can remain in the US and pursue their case.
The workers were employed by Signal International in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Tex., to work at Gulf Coast oil rig repair shipyards in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. On March 7 a federal class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of about 550 of the H-2B workers against Signal and several recruiters and labor brokers, charging that they engineered a scheme to defraud the workers; on March 18, over 100 of the workers launched a 10-day “journey for justice” from New Orleans to Washington. (See INB, March 29)
The June 11 rally marked the suspension of the hunger strike. “With our hunger strike, we have won concrete actions that will help protect future workers from the nightmare of forced labor we suffered,” said Sabulal Vijayan, a former Signal worker and member of the Indian Workers’ Congress, a group formed by the H-2B workers with help from the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “Because of the power of our hunger strike, 18 members of the US Congress have written to the Department of Justice to demand continued presence on our behalf.”
DOJ has “remained cold while these workers have taken extraordinary risks to open the world’s eyes to the reality of guestworker programs,” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “This suspension of the hunger strike gives the DOJ one last chance to fulfill its responsibility to combat the brutal reality of human trafficking,” Soni said.
As the workers rallied in Washington on June 11, the labor rights network Jobs With Justice held solidarity actions in 10 cities across the US: 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. The previous week, Jobs With Justice members wrote over 9,000 letters to the US Congress in support of the workers. (Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. Workplace Immigration Report Vol. 2, #12, June 16; New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice press release, June 11)
From Immigration News Briefs, June 22
See our last post on the politics of immigration.