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When Did the American Dream Turn into Forced Labor?

Photo credit: Rick ReinhardThey sold their homes. They said goodbye to their families. After paying recruiters $20,000 for visas to take part in this nation’s H-2B guest worker program, they traveled from India to Pascagoula, Miss. There, the Indian welders and pipe fitters were promised good jobs at the Signal International shipyard and the chance to bring their families here.

Like many of our relatives, they came to the United States in search of the American Dream.

Yet, what they found was modern-day forced labor. They were forced to live in a cramped space with two dozen other workers—and pay more than $1,000 per month for the privilege. Toilet and shower facilities were few, and they were not allowed off-site to purchase groceries to replace the company’s intolerable food.

In April, I described here how the workers left the shipyard and traveled to Washington, D.C., to seek help from Congress in a struggle that resembled the battle for human dignity throughout the civil rights era. The Indian workers described their journey to Washington as a “satyagraha,” or truth action, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi.

They met with members of Congress and staff, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. They discussed the need for Congress to make fundamental changes to the H-2B system.

But they wanted to take an even bigger step, one in keeping with the momentous move they made giving up everything to seek the American Dream. So, on May 14, several of the workers went on a hunger strike. They camped out in Lafayette Park, just steps from the White House. The hunger strike led to a commitment by congressional leaders to hold a hearing on Signal’s complicity to human trafficking and a visit to the United States by members of the Indian Parliament. Except for a few union blogs and other small media outlets, their sacrifice generated little press until publication of an article in The New York Times a few days ago.

On the eighth day of the water-only hunger strike, Christopher Glory was rushed to the hospital for strike-related health problems. In all, five of the hunger strikers were hospitalized, including Paul Konar, who went without food for 23 days.

The men took their action to the Indian Embassy, where they remained until yesterday, the 40th day of their hunger strike. We joined them in a rally at the U.S. Department of Justice to demand they are given full protection while the investigation into their charges is completed. Because while the corporate media may have ignored them, the eye of Big Brother has not.

In letter to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, the hunger strikers say that since filing a federal lawsuit alleging human trafficking by Signal, they have been under surveillance by federal immigration authorities and they fear they may be deported. They asked Miller to request the Justice Department:

Release us from the terror of covert surveillance and deportation through a grant of continued presence…so that we may safely participate in the…anti-trafficking investigation. The investigation is critical both to bring these traffickers to justice and to expose how transnational trafficking rings, including U.S. corporations, recruiters and lawyers, are manipulating the structural power imbalances in the U.S. guest worker program.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and 18 other members of the House signed a letter calling on Attorney General Michael Mukasey to

immediately grant continued presence to the guest workers trafficked to from India to the United States on H-2B visas for work in the shipyards of Signal International.

After yesterday’s rally, a delegation delivered a copy of Kucinich’s letter to officials at Justice and asked for a meeting to discuss their continued presence in the United States to participate in the official investigation into their charges. Justice officials promised to meet with them soon. Kucinich has committed to hold hearings on the abuse of the workers.

Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ), which is helping the workers, puts it bluntly:

Companies like Signal are using the program to hollow out key American industries like hospitality, shipbuilding and construction. They are replacing well-paid U.S. workers with exploitable, temporary guest workers.

Midway into the hunger strike, one of our staff from the AFL-CIO, who visited the men at the Indian Embassy, reflected on his encounter:

Of the original group, only one—Paul Konar, the oldest, who just had his 54th birthday this past week—has lasted the entire time.

I had been feeling a bit guilty that I hadn’t gone over in a while and I’m so glad I did. The site coordinator now is one of the students who fasted at Georgetown University a couple of years back. I think they are in capable hands.

Paul is, of course, much thinner than when I saw him last and his voice is weak. He slept most of the time I was there. When we talked, he spoke with an almost spiritual sense of conviction about doing this so others wouldn’t have to endure the same exploitation he and his fellow workers had suffered. He said “prayer is my food.” There wasn’t a trace of bitterness or anger. He seemed almost serene.

I forget sometimes that struggle isn’t just about tactics and strategy (though those things are undeniably important). It’s also about sacrifice and courage. Paul may not know that his campaign is an uphill battle that still may not have found much of a spotlight or a patron. If he does know, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care much. The successful hunger strike at Georgetown lasted nine days. Gandhi fasted for 21 days. Tomorrow will be day 20 for Paul. Amazing.

Konar says their actions are about much more than their own plight.

This is not about green cards, it is about justice. We want to win not just for us, but for workers who come after us. The United States is a wonderful country. People come here with hope, but some end up in modern-day slavery like we experienced.

(You can help the hunger strikers by making a donation to their struggle. Send checks to the National Immigration Law Center, 3435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2850, Los Angeles, CA, 90010. Put NOWCRJ/IWC on the check.)

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