Indian workers on hunger strike rally at the Capitol

A group of Indian workers and their supporters in the U.S. labor movement rallied at the U.S. Capitol building May 20 after the workers staged a 'water only' strike at the White House that began six days earlier.

The five who staged the hunger strike and almost 500 other pipe fitters and welders were lured from their homes in India all the way to Mississippi where they were told high paying jobs and permanent residency status were waiting for them. Soon after their arrival, they were promised, their families could join them. Signal International, the shipyard company that recruited and hired them with the false promises, charged them as much as $20,000 apiece for the trip to America.

They were forced to pay half their wages to rent filthy, cramped trailers in a section of the shipyard surrounded by barbed wire. Much of their remaining wage was taken to service their $20,000 debt and, with the company holding their passports, they were kept as virtual prison laborers.

When they complained about either their living or working conditions, company supervisors threatened them with firing, which for a “guest worker” with an H-2B visa, means automatic deportation.

The labor movement opposes the H-2B visa program which they see as rife with abuse. Originally designed so that employers who had difficulty finding skilled workers in the U.S. could get government permission to temporarily bring in workers from abroad, the program is now used by big companies to import tens of thousands of low wage laborers, driving down working conditions for all U.S. workers.

The hunger strikers spent the first few days sitting peacefully on the grass in Lafayette Park across from the White House. They received immediate encouragement from the 10 million-member AFL-CIO with Jon Hiatt, general counsel for the federation declaring, “We are proud to support the hunger strike by these Signal workers, and their campaign to shed light on the abuses of the U.S. government’s H-2B guest worker program.”

The group moved on the third day to sit in front of the Indian embassy. One of the workers, Muruganantham Kanhasami, said in a statement issued for him by the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, “If we, the workers of India, can have the courage to talk to U.S. Congressmen and U.S. federal authorities, then surely the Indian government can do the same, so that no other Indian worker suffers as we did.”

Standing with his fellow workers in front of the statue of Gandhi outside the embassy, Kanhasami urged the Indian government to press the U.S. for a congressional investigation and to press the U.S. to allow the workers to remain here while the matter is investigated.

Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, said that so far the Indian government has offered the workers only vague statements regarding protocol. “These workers are risking their lives in the hope that the Indian government will find the courage to pressure the U.S. government to grant them dignity, and protect future workers,” he declared.

The workers are part of a class action lawsuit against Signal International and the lawyers it paid to lure them to the United States. In addition to helping pay their travel costs, the AFL-CIO helped with getting the workers legal representation. The lawsuit charges Signal International and its lawyers with human trafficking.

Among the union leaders who came out to support the workers as they sat across from the White House was Michael Wilson, the UFCW vice president for legislative affairs. “The H-2B visa system,” he declared, “puts workers in a situation where they have no labor rights or civil rights and they become indentured servants. These workers should not have to wait for another Emancipation Proclamation before they get justice.”

Some measure of justice might just be on the way.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), after the rally, expressed support for both the hunger strike and the legal actions the Indian workers have taken. “All of this underscores that the U.S. guest worker program is in serious need of reform,” he said. Miller, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, added that he will not support a guest worker program until there is a guaranteed end to the abuses.