Shipyard workers defy slave-like conditions

By Lee Sustar

REFUSING TO work in slave-like conditions, 100 immigrant guest workers from India walked out of the Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., on March 6--and they launched a legal campaign against the company and labor recruiters for involvement in human trafficking.

The walkout came almost exactly a year after six workers were terminated by Signal for protesting their terrible working conditions and overcrowding in company-owned camps, where 24 men were kept in a 12-by-18-foot barracks with only two toilets and four sinks--at a rent of $35 per day.

About 100 other workers have left since then. But one, Sabulal Vijayan, stayed in the area and worked with Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice to organize the guest workers still on the job.

The focus of this year's action is Signal's reliance on labor contractors in India who charged the workers fees ranging from $14,000 to $20,000 in exchange for a job and a green card that would enable them to reside and work legally in the U.S.

In reality, the workers got jobs at Signal under the H-2B guest-worker program in the wake of the Katrina hurricane disaster. Those visas bind workers to a single employer and don't allow them to apply for green cards. But the workers, in debt to the labor recruiters, stayed with the jobs to try and protect their families from retribution by debt collectors.

By walking off the job, the workers were considered terminated by Signal, according to Stephen Boykewich, media director of the New Orleans Workers Center.

Nevertheless, the workers walked out in high spirits, tossing their hard hats into the air. They carried signs that read, "I Am A Man"--modeled on the placards carried by striking African American sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, where Martin Luther King walked the picket lines in the final days prior to his assassination.

"The workers understood last year just how far the company was willing to go to stop them from organizing," said Boykewich. "But they continued to organize because in large part they understood that what had happened was far beyond the bounds of U.S. law."

The U.S. Department of Justice has informed the workers that it is investigating the complaints about labor trafficking by Signal and its recruiters. The workers have also filed a lawsuit against the company, its recruiters and a New Orleans immigration attorney. Supporting the workers are legal teams from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Louisiana Justice Project and Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"The overriding issue is that the U.S. government's guest-worker program is used as a vehicle for labor trafficking and forced slavery," said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice.

"The workers want to unmask the reality of the guest-worker program. As Congress returns to debate the future of labor and migration policy in the U.S., and as the [Bush] administration cuts bilateral deals with other nations on the future of labor migration, these workers want to ensure that their experiences and expertise shape the terms on which governments allow workers to migrate."