100 satyagrahis grill Indian Ambassador during three-hour meeting – 3/27/08
NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE
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100 satyagrahis grill Indian Ambassador during three-hour meeting
Diplomat falls short of concrete timelines but pledges moral support
WASHINGTON, DC – After a nine-day satyagraha that began in New Orleans, nearly 100 Indian human trafficking survivors packed the central hall of the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, on Thursday for a three-hour meeting with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen, along with over a dozen of the workers’ advocates and major international news media.
Though the workers and the ambassador agreed that the meeting was “a conversation, not a confrontation,” the atmosphere was tense at times as the workers confronted Ambassador Sen over comments in the press attributed to embassy officials that referred to “the stupidity of greedy and semi-literate workers.” They also pressed him for a commitment that Indian officials would always put the workers first in any future handling of the case, rather than the company that held them in forced labor, Signal International.
“We’re hoping that before any action is taken interfacing with company representatives, with government representatives, with any other representatives of any other interests…in this issue, either here or in India, you will communicate with us first. Do we have that assurance?” asked Saket Soni, a workers’ advocate and director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
“Yes. I have heard you and I have heard everyone here loud and clear,” Ambassador Sen said.
The workers expressed disappointment with Ambassador Sen’s inability to provide a concrete timeline on actions to open US-Indian talks on protecting future Indian workers from abuses of the guest worker program. The ambassador also refused to advocate for the workers with the US Department of Justice and other US agencies, claiming that protocol forbade him from doing so.
“We are not satisfied because the ambassador is locked in protocols. But human trafficking does not follow protocols,” Sabulal Vijayan, former Signal worker and organizer with the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, said after the meeting. “The company and the recruiters that exploited us were not doing things by the book. Human trafficking shatters all protocols and requires a response that does the same.”
Rajan Pazhambalakode, another organizer and former Signal worker, said: “What we need is action, not just symbolic reassurances. We are going to continue to work to arrive at a timeline for action from the ambassador.”
The 100 workers who met with the ambassador were among over 500 Indian welders and pipe fitters who paid approximately $20,000 apiece to US and Indian recruiters for false promises of permanent residency in the US, and instead were held in forced labor by Northrop Grumman subcontractor Signal International on ten-month temporary H2B guest worker visas in Gulf Coast shipyards under deplorable conditions. The Department of Justice has opened a human trafficking investigation into the case, and US Congressman George Miller has demanding detailed documentation about the case from Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.
Allies and advocates for the workers from the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, South Asian Americans Leading Together, Jobs With Justice, and Southern Poverty Law Center attended the meeting.
The ranks of the workers’ allies and supporters have surged during the nine-day satyagraha from New Orleans to Washington, DC, and also include legendary civil rights leader Hollis Watkins, the National Immigration Law Center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute, the Low-Wage Migrant Worker Coalition, the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, Rev. Timothy McDonald’s First Iconium Baptist Church, Rev. Nelson Johnson’s Beloved Community, Amnesty International, and numerous other groups.
The workers plan to remain in Washington, DC, for seven days, during which they hope to meet with key Congressional decision-makers on labor and immigration policy. On Monday at 11:30 a.m. EST, they will hold a rally in front of the White House with local allies Jobs With Justice.
The workers’ experiences during their journey to and stay in DC are being detailed in a text and photo blog at www.neworleansworkerjustice.org.