By Dawn Philip, Reproductive Justice Project Director
On Monday, March 31, nearly 100 South Asian immigrant workers marched to the White House protesting inhumane living and working conditions and publicizing the dark side of the U.S. guest worker program. Chanting “All the way to the White House!” and “We want justice!” the workers, along with their supporters, gathered in front of the White House and demanded that Congress investigate their former employer Signal International, a marine construction company that held them in forced labor. The workers arrived in D.C. after a nine-day satyagraha or ‘journey for justice’ from New Orleans that drew wide support from clergy, organized labor and African American and Asian-American community leaders. Sunita Gupta, Executive Director of Jobs With Justice proclaimed: “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 workers are part of a group of over 500 South Asian welders and pipe fitters who paid approximately $25,000 each to recruiters in Indian and the United Arab EmiratesUnited States. To pay these hefty fees, many of the workers sold their homes, took out large loans, and sold family jewelry. Upon arriving in the U.S., however, the workers experienced a very different reality. Far from being on a path to permanent citizenship, they found themselves at Signal International on ten-month temporary H2B “guest worker” visas working in Gulf Coast shipyards under deplorable conditions. According to the lawsuit filed on behalf of the workers by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups, the workers were forced to live in overcrowded guarded “bunkhouses” at Signal International, with twenty-four workers crammed into dormitory-like facilities sharing only two restrooms. They were isolated from the public and under constant surveillance by armed guards. after being assured that the company would help them become permanent residents of the
I had the opportunity to attend the rally in D.C. and was immediately inspired by the courage of these workers to lead this call for immigrant worker justice. One by one, they told their stories and by doing so gave voice to the many “guest workers” in similar situations they represented. Where are these stories (and there are many more of them) in the media and in the comprehensive immigration reform debate? As API women committed to ending the continuing labor exploitation in our own community as well as other communities, it is up to us to publicize the compelling stories of these workers. Unfortunately, the stories of these workers reflect the reality of too many immigrant workers who come to the U.S. in pursuit of an increasingly elusive “American dream.”
To find out more about the “journey for justice,” contact SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together). To donate much needed funds to the workers and the campaign, please go to The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.