Hungry for Justice

When Paul Konar left his native India for the United States in 2006, he could never have imagined that less than two years later, he and several of his co-workers would be giving a lesson in Indian-style change making. Yet Konar, joined by his supporters and fellow fasters, has been on a vigil in Washington, DC for 17 days. He hasn’t eaten anything since May 14.

“We have learned from Gandhi that when faced with injustice, non-violent non-cooperation is the way to create meaningful change,” said Konar, speaking in front of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Dupont Circle. “By keeping this vigil we are letting the world know that this modern-day form of slavery, known as the H2B guest worker program, must end.”

An Industry of (False) Hope

In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, an unknown number of workers were contacted by contractors around the world to come and help rebuild. Companies that had already been awarded huge contracts and incentives to set up shop in the Gulf Coast were being extra greedy – guest workers generally make about 60-80% of the prevailing wage for domestic workers. By using guest workers to implement their contracts, companies were ensuring extra padding in their profit margins while simultaneously breaking the back of the already weak organized labor movement.

To implement this strategy, Signal International, a subcontractor of Northrop Grumman, had to find cheap and efficient skilled labor to build the ships that it was contracted to provide. The target country for finding these skilled workers? India – a country with a whole lot of skilled yet impoverished people.

But there was a problem with this strategy. Many Indians with the specific welding skills needed to help Signal International were already working abroad. These workers were often in the Middle East, and making pretty good money. Most workers were also able to negotiate with their employers the opportunity to spend at least two-three months per year in their home country. Clearly it was going to take something special to convince such workers to give up their jobs and move to a completely new country.

Enter Sachin Dewan, of Dewan Consulting. Dewan was an Indian recruiter who specialized in finding skilled labor for U.S. companies. By placing ads in newspapers and magazines read by Indians abroad, Dewan was able to get in touch with hundreds of Indian workers. When these workers visited Dewan’s offices in Dubai or Mumbai, he convinced them of the benefits of working for Signal International, often with representatives of Signal International and always with Signal’s U.S. lawyer Malvern Burnett present.

The workers were promised the ability to bring over their families, permanent residency and green cards (the magic word) if they agreed to work for Signal International in its shipyards in Mississippi and Texas. In exchange for this bonanza, the workers need only pay the “paltry” sum of $20,000 U.S. up front and in cash.

These workers were not spring chickens and they knew enough to get such guarantees written down and to get receipts for every dollar they paid. Even then, some began to suspect that these dealings may not be above board and demanded their money back. The response of Sachin Dewan and others was that they had entered into a legal process that could not be revoked and so unless the remaining money was paid, their passports (which were with the recruiter to expedite the visa application process) would not be returned. In some cases, Dewan even threatened to burn their passports.

To raise the money needed to participate in this scheme, workers mortgaged their houses, sold family heirlooms, and took out high-interest loans.

This is what a Labor Camp Looks Like

When the workers arrived in the United States, they found conditions very different to those they had seen in India and in the Middle East. Workers were living 24 to a room with only two toilets and one bathroom between them. They were given poor quality food in the morning, and by the time they took their lunch break in the evening, the food had already started to spoil.

For the lodging and food services, Signal charged each worker $1,050 per month.

Furthermore workers were under constant threat of deportation; often deportation was used as an incentive to get the workers to work harder. They were already doing more welding every day than they ever had (a tactic that may have been used to reduce their hours and hence their wages). The threat of deportation often made them pick up that already brisk pace. Phrases like, “we know what life is like back in India, and this is better than that so you better not complain” were common.

Because workers had little knowledge of life outside their labor camp, they had no way of knowing how bad their conditions really were by U.S. standards. When they started to hold meetings at a local church to demand their rights, Signal International fought back. They hired a security company to send in armed guards to intimidate the workers and took aside four of the key organizers and threatened them with deportation. The intimidation worked – one of the organizers, Sabulal Vijayan, asked to go to the bathroom and attempted to commit suicide. The thought of going home with nothing except a huge string of unpaid debts was too much to bear.

Organizing for Justice

In the wake of the attempted suicide and after much soul searching, the Indian workers reported that they were the victims of a labor trafficking ring in March of this year. At the same time, they staged a walkout from the company and literally threw their hardhats at the company gates.

To make their voices heard on Capitol Hill, they traveled to Washington from New Orleans. When there were indications that they were being followed at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, the workers decided that this trip would be better made in the style of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. They would march the rest of the way. Though marching by foot was always part of the plan, intimidation by the immigration authorities forced the workers’ hands.

“The world today has no leader like M. Gandhi,” Konar said. “I want for the whole world to remember Gandhi’s actions and to salute him.”

While their march drew some attention from the media and garnered some support in Congress, the workers felt that it was not enough. In keeping with the traditions of Gandhi and King, a hunger strike was seen as the logical next phase of the campaign.

The bravery of these workers is awe-inspiring. Since March, they have turned from full-time welders to full-time organizers. Meetings, rallies and marches have replaced life in shipyards. The amount that they have achieved during these few months – from building relationships with NGOs and unions to increasing support in Congress – is truly remarkable.

While the bravery of these workers is beyond doubt, the result of the case is not. The Department of Justice is willing to hear the case, but insists that the workers begin deportation proceedings first. Deporting witnesses seems a pretty bad tactic for any prosecutor.

Supporters in Congress are working on a letter to the Department of Justice asking that these workers be given Continued Presence until their case can be heard. After that, the workers ask that the company that has so wronged them be brought to justice and that no one else be put through the suffering that they have seen.

Sameer Dossani, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a freelance journalist and organizer who blogs at shirinandsameer.blogspot.com. He is currently working with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, the organization that has been helping these workers in their organizing efforts.