Gulf Coast guest workers rally in D.C.

Facing South previously reported on the struggle of a group of Indian guest workers who walked off their jobs in Mississippi shipyards in early March. These workers say they became victims of human trafficking when they were brought to the United States under a temporary guest worker program.

In mid-May, these workers launched a hunger strike in front of the White House. Hunger strikers and their allies are gathering today, the 29th day of the strike, in Washington D.C. and in solidarity actions sponsored by Jobs with Justice in ten other cities around the United States. The hunger strike is meant to pressure federal officials, and comes as Congress is debating an expansion of the guest worker program, known as H-2B. These workers are also requesting a continued presence in the United States for the duration of the Department of Justice investigation into their case, and Congressional hearings on the abuses of the H-2B guest worker program.

The Indian workers say they were deceived by labor recruiters as well as Pascagoula, Miss.-based Signal International, a marine construction company which had been recruiting extra workers because of a shortage of skilled labor following Hurricane Katrina.

The workers said they paid as much as $20,000 for visas they believed would allow them to work and live permanently with their families in the United States. Beginning in late 2006, the Indian workers were taken to Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss.

The guest workers said they lived in sweltering labor camps, crowded 24 workers to a room, under a strict curfew. They were restricted from leaving the yards and had $1,050 a month deducted from their paychecks for yard upkeep. The workers said they learned only after they were in the United States that they would not receive green cards, but would instead receive the H-2B visas for short-term contracts.

When more than 100 workers walked off the shipyards in early March, they received organizing support from GulfCoast groups such the New Orleans' WorkersCenter for Racial Justice, and a number of labor, immigrant rights, and civil rights communities. In March, 100 workers traveled, many by foot, from New Orleans to WashingtonD.C. During their eight-day journey, they met with allies from the African-American and labor rights communities in key sites of the Southern Black freedom struggle, including Jackson, Montgomery, Atlanta, and Greensboro. That same month, the guest workers, along with groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed a federal anti-racketeering lawsuit against their recruiters.

Since May 14, a total of 15 workers have taken part in the hunger strike, some of whom have been hospitalized.