Black Churches, Labor Activists form Underground Railroad for Indian Guest Workers

By Terry Keleher Mar 28, 2008

On a recent visit to New Orleans, I attended a memorable celebration at a neighborhood gymnasium organized by the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. As I entered the gym, the jubilant spirit was contagious, as a group of immigrant workers performed a series of lively popular education skits highlighting themes of organizing for justice and human rights. The skits were followed by a spontaneous succession of storytelling, singing and dancing shared by a multicultural audience of Indian guest workers, Latino immigrants, white supporters and an energetic group of young Black jazz musicians who lead everyone in a lively New Orleans–style parade around the gym. Amidst all the hand-shaking, hugging, marching and moving, there was a palpable feeling of camaraderie and hope, as if this magical moment was the beginning of something much bigger; indeed, the possibility that people from across the globe could truly unite and experience the taste of justice. The celebration marked the culmination of an organizing drive by nearly 100 Indian H2B guest workers who had broken an 18-month chain of human trafficking between Mumbai, India and Pascagoula, Mississippi. The workers had just walked off their jobs at a shipyard operated by Signal International. The workers marched to the company’s main gate bearing placard’s demanding dignity, and in unison, threw their hard hats at the gate, walked off the site and began their journey toward freedom. (You can watch dramatic CBS TV coverage of the event here. According to the Workers’ Center’s press releases: “The trafficking chain began in 2006 when recruiters in New Orleans and Bombay, together with Signal, a Northrop Grumman subcontractor, used the post-Katrina labor shortage in the Gulf Coast to create a trafficking racket within the guest worker program that President George W. Bush wants to expand. “For more than one year, hundreds of Indian workers at Signal International have been living like slaves. We paid $15,000 to $20,000 to come here because we were promised green cards and permanent residency, but they lied and gave us 10-month guest worker visas instead. Signal knew about our debt and exploited us,” former Signal worker Sabulal Vijayan told an audience of domestic and international media, on the day the workers decided to take a bold stand for their rights. “Today the workers are coming out to declare their freedom. This trafficking needs to end. We need freedom in this country. I am a human being. That’s my message,” said Vijayan, who has testified before a Congressional subcommittee investigating post-Katrina labor violations on the Gulf Coast. “I have been a guest worker all my life in many parts of the world, and I never saw such conditions. We were forced to live in company trailers, 24 men in a single room,” former Signal employee Rajan Pazhambalakode. “We spoke out to protect future workers.” When the workers began to organize last year, Signal sent armed guards to detain and fire the organizers. A year later, Signal workers took action to end Signal’s continuing recruitment of Indian workers. “The US State Department calls it ‘a repulsive crime’ when recruiters and employers in other parts of the world bind guest workers with crushing debts and threats of deportation,” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “This is precisely what is happening on the Gulf Coast.” The group is now challenging US officials to practice what they preach by fully prosecuting those involved in human trafficking. These practices bring to light the serious flaws in current and proposed U.S. guest worker policies. To bring further attention to the plight of guestworkers, last week, more than 60 former workers at Signal began an 8-day “journey for justice” march, largely on foot, through several southern states and onto Washington, D.C. The marchers and supporters are comparing the journey to a modern-day underground railroad. The workers’ experiences during their journey to DC are being detailed in a text and photo blog at The blog details the full story:

"Make no mistake about it: these workers are victims of a system of modern-day slavery," said Rev. Timothy McDonald III, chief pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. "I granted refuge to these brave runaway slaves on Easter Sunday and will help protect them on their way to seek justice in Washington, DC." The workers have faced surveillance and harassment by immigration officials since their departure on foot from New Orleans—including as they left the Civil Rights Memorial museum in Montgomery, AL, on Friday. The ranks of the workers’ allies and supporters have grown during the 8-day journey that they call a satyagraha in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Their allies include legendary civil rights leader Hollis Watkins, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jobs With Justice, the National Immigrant Law Center, the Low-Wage Migrant Worker Coalition, the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, and numerous other groups. “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.”