Indian Workers March for Justice in the US
Press Release
New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice
March 18, 2008

100 Indian Guest Workers Launch Eight-Day ‘Journey of Justice’ Through Deep South

Defy Racism in Walk from New Orleans to DC After Breaking Human Trafficking Chain

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana – At 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 18, over 100 Indian guest workers who rocked the Indian political scene by breaking a US-Indian human trafficking chain launched a risky eight-day journey, largely on foot, from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to demand an end to abuses of the H2B guest worker program.

The workers, members of the New Orleans-based Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, will defy racism as they literally walk in the footsteps of US civil rights leaders to demand a mass meeting in DC with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen, whom they excoriated in a letter late Monday for abandoning them.

“Our own government has turned its back on us after we were treated like slaves,” said Sabulal Vijayan, one of over 500 Indian workers who were bound as forced labor to Gulf Coast marine construction company Signal International, as the group began their journey with a rally at the Department of Labor building in New Orleans. The workers paid $20,000 to Indian and US recruiters for false promises of work-based permanent residency in the US, and instead the workers received ten-month H2B guest worker visas and worked at Signal in deplorable conditions.

“This guest worker program held me captive in the United States while my father died in India without me by his side. I don’t want compensation for my loss—I want justice for the migrant workers who come after me,” said former Signal worker Paul Konar.

The workers will meet with their growing network of supporters and allies as they travel through key sites of the US civil rights struggle, including Jackson, Mississippi; Selma, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; and Greensboro, North Carolina. Their experiences will be detailed in a text and photo blog at www.neworleansworkerjustice.org. They will arrive in DC on March 26 as Congress prepares for a session in which a massive expansion of the guest worker program is at the top of the agenda.

The workers received widespread national coverage in the US and raised a firestorm in the Indian media when they walked out on Mar. 6 from Signal and demanded federal prosecution of the company and its US and Indian recruiters. The Department of Justice has since opened an official investigation into the workers’ charges of human trafficking, and the workers have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the traffickers.

The group sent a list of demands to Ambassador Sen late Monday in a letter that blasted him for failing to respond to their request for a meeting for seven days. The demands they said they would discuss with him in DC on March 26 included pressure on the US Department of State to restrict travel to India for Signal’s US recruiters, as well as pressure on the US government to halt any expansion of the guest worker program until both governments have adopted an agreement that reflects the interests of workers, as well as companies and recruiters.

“What happened to these workers wasn’t the exception—it was the rule,” said Tracie Washington, an attorney from the Louisiana Justice Project and a member of the workers’ legal team. “While hundreds of thousands of African-American workers were locked out of the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, the guest worker program has locked workers like these in.”

“These workers want the same thing Americans want: a just immigration system that does not bind the US economy to exploitable foreign workers while displacing poor and working-class American workers,” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “It’s time for Congress to wake up to the fact that the guest worker program is a path to an American nightmare.”

Contact: Stephen Boykewich, +1-504-655-0876, spboykewich@gmail.com

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