Rajan Pazhambalakode, 43, had been a guest worker in the Persian Gulf for years when he saw an ad for what looked like the chance of a lifetime: workbased permanent residency in the United States for welders and pipe-fitters, together with green cards for them and their families.
“I sold my home for the chance to be with my family in America,” said Pazhambalakode, one of the more than 550 Indian workers who paid $20,000 each in late 2006 for the chance to work at Signal International, a U.S. marine construction company in the Gulf Coast region.
Instead of achieving the American dream, the workers arrived into an American nightmare. Signal forced them to live 24 men to a trailer in labor camps at its Mississippi and Texas shipyards, charging each of them $1,050 a month and forbidding them from living off company grounds. Instead of permanent residency and green cards, the workers received temporary, ten-month H-2B guest worker visas, which allow no path to more permanent status. And since H-2B visas bind workers to a single employer, Signal answered the Indian workers’ complaints with threats of deportation.
What Signal didn’t count on was that the workers would fight back.
The devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 created a nightmare for millions of Americans, who lost their homes and jobs across the U.S. Gulf Coast. But employers like Signal saw a golden opportunity to cash in on the crisis. Even once unemployment in the Gulf Coast had skyrocketed as high as 35 percent, Signal and other local employers in industries from hospitality to shipbuilding won certifications from the U.S. Department of Labor to hire foreign guest workers on H-2B visas, a short-term work visa meant to let employers compensate for a temporary deficit of American workers by hiring foreign workers instead. The result: U.S. workers — often working-class African- Americans — were locked out of what had been permanent, well-paying jobs in the Gulf Coast, while exploitable foreign workers were locked in and paid a fraction of what their U.S. peers had earned.
When the Signal workers began to organize for their rights in March 2007, the company tried to make good on its threats. It sent armed guards to lock up the organizers at its shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., saying they would be deported. In desperation, one organizer slit his wrist. Signal released the men but fired them.
For most H-2B workers — trapped between a mountain of debt back home and exploitation in the United States — that would have been the end of the story. But with the help of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, the Signal workers organized as the Indian Workers’ Congress (IWC). A year after Signal’s raid, more than 100 of the workers walked out of company camps in Pascagoula and Orange, Texas, and reported the company and its recruiters to the U.S. Department of Justice’s human trafficking division, and filed a major class-action lawsuit against the traffickers in federal court.
Since their March 2008 walkout, IWC members have taken extraordinary risks to force the United States and Indian governments to come to terms with the brutality of guest worker programs. The workers made a nine-day “journey for justice,” largely on foot, from New Orleans to Washington, D.C.; met with dozens of Congressional members or staff; and launched a hunger strike in the capital May 16, which they suspended on June 11 after an unprecedented outpouring of support from allies in the U.S. Congress, organized labor, civil rights groups and faith communities.
Their struggle is far from over. The poisonous political atmosphere around immigration in the United States has left the workers subject to surveillance and intimidation by immigration authorities since they escaped Signal’s labor camps in Mississippi and Texas in March. The Department of Justice has opened a human trafficking investigation, but presented the workers with a grotesque Catch-22: they must submit themselves for voluntary deportation proceedings before they will be allowed to participate in the investigation.
And though some members of Congress are beginning to understand that guest worker programs have been a disaster for the United States and foreign workers alike, many more are rushing to expand them. In late May, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) attempted to slip an amendment expanding the H-2B program into a supplemental Iraq war spending bill.
Labor trafficker Signal International is now in crisis mode, scrambling to recast itself as a model employer. But for the Indian workers who are demanding release from the terror of deportation, Congressional hearings on abuses of guest workers and U.S.-Indian government talks to protect future workers, the real fight has just begun.
Sabulal Vijayan is a former Signal worker and one of the lead organizers of the Indian Workers’ Congress. Stephen Boykewich is the Media Director for the Indian Workers’ Campaign led by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. For more information, visit neworleansworkerjustice.org.