Indian Embassy feasts while hunger strikers starve – 05/17/08
Indian Embassy feasts while hunger strikers starve
Embassy visitors see Indian labor trafficking survivors abandoned by their government
WASHINGTON, DC – On Saturday, May 17, hundreds of American visitors who lined up outside the Indian Embassy for its first-ever official cultural day were met with the sight of Indian hunger strikers growing weak on the fourth day of a fast to protest their government’s failure to support their quest for justice against a US-Indian labor trafficking ring.
The former guest workers who broke an 18-month labor trafficking chain by company Signal International and its US and Indian recruiters earlier this year filled the square only steps from the embassy entrance, in the shadow of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. The workers chanted: “Lift up your voices-we are one!” and carried signs reading: “As you feast, we starve” and “Indian government, help your people!”-even while caterers carried steaming trays of food through the embassy doors. (See photos at www.flickr.com/photos/nolaworkerscenter)
Hundreds of American visitors and passersby came to speak with the workers and offer their support. Many expressed shock that the workers had been abandoned by their own government and driven to risk their lives with a hunger strike. Many also signed a petition supporting the hunger strikers’ demands: protected status for the workers to let them participate in a criminal investigation against the traffickers, a Congressional investigation into abuses of the guest worker program, and Indian pressure on the US to protect future workers.
The five workers who began the water-only hunger strike on May 14 were visibly weakened, often laying down to conserve their energy, though their commitment to continue the fast was unwavering.
“We feel strong because in our hearts, we know our cause is just,” said hunger striker Paul Konar.
The hunger strikers were among more than 500 Indian welders and pipe fitters who paid up to $20,000 apiece for false promises of green cards and work-based permanent residency in the United States. Instead they received 10-month temporary H2B guest worker visas starting in late 2006 and worked at marine construction company Signal International under deplorable conditions.
“The workers demands are more than reasonable: They simply want to stay in the United States long enough to participate in an official investigation that will protect future workers from being trafficked into the same nightmare,” said Saket Soni, workers’ advocate and director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
The hunger strike will remain at the embassy’s doorstep until Tuesday, May 20, when the location shifts to the Capitol Reflecting Pool (3rd St between Maryland and Pennsylvania Ave, NW). On May 21, the number of hunger strikers will double.
The workers are members of the Indian Workers’ Congress and the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, affiliates of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
Follow the hunger strike on our text and photo blog: www.neworleansworkerjustice.org.