Indian hunger strikers confront US Congress over H2B guest worker program expansion – 5/21/08
NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE
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Indian hunger strikers confront US Congress over H2B guest worker program expansion
Call for hearings into abuses as first hunger striker hospitalized on Day Eight of fast
WASHINGTON, DC – On Wednesday, May 21, Indian hunger strikers representing over 550 of their countrymen—all of them survivors of a labor trafficking ring within the H2B guest worker visa program—challenged Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) to visit the hunger strikers and confront the abuses of the H2B guest worker visa program the senators seek to expand.
Seven of the hunger strikers and about 20 supporters visited the offices of Mikulski and Gregg on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon, shortly after one of the hunger strikers, Christopher Glory, was taken to George Washington University Hospital with dangerously low blood pressure. (See photos at www.flickr.com/photos/nolaworkerscenter)
“I’m not going to stop my hunger strike,” former H2B worker Paul Konar told Sen. Mikulski’s top legislative aide in charge of immigration policy. “Every one of us may wind up in a hospital bed, but this program has to change.”
Konar is one of over 550 Indian workers who were lured to the United States in late 2006 with false promises of green cards and work-based permanent residency—for which they paid up to $20,000 apiece—and instead received temporary, 10-month H2B visas and worked at Signal under deplorable conditions.
“Senators Mikulski and Gregg are pushing for expansion of the H2B program without taking a hard look at the realities of the guest worker visa program,” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “Companies like Signal hollowing out key American industries and replacing well-paid US workers with exploitable, temporary guest workers. We invite the senators to come learn the truth from the workers who have lived it.”
After facing constant threats of deportation from Signal and armed force when they attempted to organize, the Indian workers escaped the company’s Gulf Coast labor camps in March 2008 and reported the company and its recruiters to the Department of Justice Criminal Anti-Trafficking Division.
They have since been re-traumatized by covert surveillance by Immigration authorities, and on May 14, they launched a water-only hunger strike demanding protected status so they can participate in the ongoing Department of Justice investigation against the traffickers, a Congressional investigation into abuses of the guest worker program, and Indian pressure on the US to protect future workers.
Six more workers joined the hunger strike after a rally at the Capitol Hill Reflecting Pool on Wednesday, bringing the total number of hunger strikers to eleven.
“The Indian workers’ story is emblematic of the way that so-called guest worker programs are actually indentured worker programs,” said Sarita Gupta, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice. “Expanding the H2B visa program would be a disaster both for the American workers it locks out and the foreign workers it locks in.”
Speaking at the rally were New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice director Saket Soni, hunger striker Paul Konar, Father Gerald Nagle of the Franciscan Brotherhood, and Free the Slaves president Kevin Bales.
Jobs With Justice affiliates in Washington, DC; Providence, RI; Buffalo, NY; and Richmond, VA also announced out 24-hour solidarity fasts on Wednesday in support of the workers.
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.