Indian trafficking survivors suspend hunger strike on Day 29 after huge political gains – 6/11/08
NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE
*** JUNE 11, 2008 – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ***
Indian trafficking survivors suspend hunger strike on Day 29 after huge political gains
Workers celebrate support, vow to fight on as allies hold solidarity rallies in 10 US cities
WASHINGTON, DC – On Wednesday, June 11, 2008, about 150 Indian labor trafficking survivors and supporters rallied at the US Department of Justice headquarters, where the workers suspended their hunger strike on Day 29 after an unprecedented outpouring of support from US Congressmen and leaders from labor, civil rights, and religious communities.
“Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act because we recognized that modern day slavery exists and that workers trafficked into the United States should be able to place their faith in the United States justice system,” US Congressman Dennis Kucinich said at the rally, one week after he and 17 Congressional colleagues sent a letter to the Department of Justice urging legal protections for the workers while it investigates their case. “Today, we must make sure we don’t betray their faith in us.”
Indian Member of Parliament S.K. Kharventhan (Tamil Nadu, Congress Party) also pledged his support to the workers after flying from India to meet with them and attend the rally, saying: “This issue needs to be taken up as an international crime in India. I pledge my support to you. Meeting with you personally has opened my eyes to the seriousness of the problem and the fact that the Indian government should help you bring the traffickers to justice.”
“After 29 days, we are suspending a hunger strike that has brought us more power than any group of H2B guest workers in the United States has ever had,” said Sabulal Vijayan, an organizer with the Indian Workers’ Congress. “We have the confidence to suspend our hunger strike today because we have faith in these allies to fight alongside us until the traffickers are brought to justice.”
The vast support for the workers’ fight for justice against the labor trafficking chain of Signal International and its recruiters was clear from the speakers at Wednesday’s rally, which included:
- US Congressman Dennis Kucinich
- Indian Member of Parliament S.K. Kharventhan, Tamil Nadu, Congress Party
- Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickeled and Dimed
- Rev. Graylan Hagler, Senior Minister, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
- Jon Hiatt, General Counsel, AFL-CIO
- John Cavanagh, director, Institute of Policy Studies
- John Flynn, President, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers
- Sarita Gupta, Executive Director, Jobs With Justice
- Indian Workers’ Congress organizer Sabulal Vijayan
- Saket Soni, director, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice
In addition, labor rights group Jobs With Justice held solidarity actions in 10 cities across the US on Wednesday: Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Portland, OR; Knoxville, TN; Richmond, VA; Chicago, IL; Salt Lake City, UT; New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; and San Francisco, CA. Last week, Jobs With Justice members wrote over 9,000 letters to US Congress in support of the workers.
“But our victory today is not yet complete,” Vijayan added, referring to the Department of Justice’s failure to release the labor trafficking survivors from the terror of deportation by granting them continued presence in the US, as requested by Rep. Kucinich and his 17 colleagues.
“We live in constant terror of deportation. We cannot work. We cannot see our families. We cannot provide for our families. We are listening to our children grow up over long distance phone calls. Because of the DOJ’s inaction, our lives are in limbo,” Vijayan said.
After the workers broke the fast in a ceremony blessed by Rev. Graylan Hagler and other faith leaders, a delegation of ten workers’ allies went into the Department of Justice and met with Constituent Relations Associate Director Julie Warren, who agreed to set a meeting between the workers and the DoJ Civil Rights Division for the week of June 16th.
“Scripture says: ‘Is this not the fast which I choose to loose the bonds of wickedness, and to let the oppressed go free?’” Rev. Hagland said, before he and other clergy distributed pieces of bread to the workers. “That is what we’re standing here to do, to loose the bonds of wickedness, and to let the oppressed go free.”
The hunger strike followed nearly 18 months of organizing by the workers, who paid US and Indian recruiters up to $20,000 apiece for false promises of permanent residency and green cards. Instead they received 10-month temporary H2B guest worker visas and worked at Signal’s Gulf Coast shipyards under deplorable conditions. A total of 20 workers participated in the strike, five of whom were hospitalized. One of them, Paul Konar, fasted for 23 straight days before being stopped by health problems.
The workers escaped Signal’s labor camps in March 2008 and made a 10-day “journey for justice,” largely on foot, from New Orleans to Washington, DC. They launched their hunger strike on May 14 to demand temporary legal status in the US, Congressional hearings into abuses of guest workers, and talks between the US and Indian governments to protect future guest workers.
“The Department of Justice, like the Indian government, has remained cold while these workers have taken extraordinary risks to open the world’s eyes to the reality of guest worker programs,” said Saket Soni, workers’ advocate and director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “This suspension of the hunger strike gives them both one last chance to fulfill their responsibility to combat the brutal reality of human trafficking.”
The Indian Workers’ Congress is an affiliate of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.