Friday, March 21, 2008
A group of about 70 Indian workers marched onto the Mississippi State Capitol Thursday protesting treatment by Pascagoula construction company Signal International, LLC. "These people endured a kind of slavery," said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice. "That is really the word for it."
Former Signal workers, many of them from Bombay, claim they were promised well-paying jobs and citizenship by recruiters back in India.
"A (recruiter company) called Dewan Consultancies promised us permanent residency and green cards. The cost to us was $15,000 to $20,000," said Sabulal Vijayan through a translated statement.
Many of the workers sold their homes or relinquished mortgages back in India and came to America, only to find themselves living in a Pascagoula "man-camp" and stuck with H2B visas, which are only good as long as the worker holds his assigned job. Workers say the employers knew that they needed only to fire the workers to get them deported, keeping complaints at a minimum.
Workers had plenty of reasons to complain, however.
"The living spaces were 36 by 24 feet, and there were 24 beds to the room. ... For 24 people there were two (toilets) and four showers. For this degrading accommodation they deducted $1,050 per month from our paychecks," Vijayan said.
Attempts to reason with Signal employers often resulted in termination and immediate deportation, according to Soni. Frustrated, the workers walked off their jobs on March 5 and reported the human trafficking to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Soni said the workers did not go through local authorities. "We can never tell when the local authorities, the sheriff or police are working with the employers," he said.
The workers intend to march on to other locations, eventually working their way to Washington, D.C., to take their complaints to U.S. lawmakers.
Representatives of Signal's Pascagoula office could not be reached for comment.
The company's Web site claims it resorted to H2B workers in 2006 to shore up a "chronic labor shortage" triggered by Hurricane Katrina. The Web site also claims it currently has 300 guest workers on the payroll as full-time employees, and houses the employees at an onsite facility.
Sounds like these workers could use someone like Zach Hunter to advocate for them. I also found a description of modern-day slavery on iAbolish.org: CHATTEL SLAVERY is closest to the slavery that prevailed in early American history. Chattel slaves are considered their masters' property — exchanged for things like trucks or money and expected to perform labor and sexual favors. Once of age, their children are expected to do the same. Chattel slavery is typically racially-based; in the North African country of Mauritania, for example, black Africans serve the lighter-skinned Arab-Berber communities. Though slavery was legally abolished there in 1980, today 90,000 slaves continue to serve the Muslim Berber ruling class. Similarly, in the African country of Sudan, Arab northerners are known to raid the villages in the South — killing all the men and taking the women and children to be auctioned off and sold into slavery. DEBT BONDAGE, or bonded labor, is the most widely practiced form of slavery around the world. In Southeast Asia, where it is most prevalent, debt bondage claims an estimated 15 to 20 million victims. The staggering poverty there forces many parents to offer themselves or their own children as collateral against a loan. Though they are promised they will work only until their debt is paid off, the reality is much grimmer. Thanks to inflated interest rates and fresh debts incurred while being fed and housed, the debt becomes impossible to pay off. As a result, it is often inherited by the bonded laborer's children, perpetuating a vicious cycle that can claim several generations. SEX SLAVERY finds women and children forced into prostitution. Many are lured by false offers of a good job and then beaten and forced to work in brothels. In Southeast Asia, however, it is not uncommon to find women coerced by their own husbands, fathers, and brothers to earn money for the men in the family to pay back local money lenders. In other cases, victims pay tens of thousands of dollars to get to another country and are then forced into prostitution in pay off their own debts. In still others, women or girls are plainly kidnapped from their home countries. The sex slavery trade thrives in Central and Eastern Europe and in North America. An estimated two million women and children are sold into sex slavery around the world every year. FORCED LABOR often results when individuals are lured by the promise of a good job but instead find themselves subjected to slaving conditions — working without payment and enduring physical abuse, often in harsh and hazardous conditions. Victims include domestic workers, construction workers, and even human mine detectors. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable, as their constant changes of location make the organized crime rings that traffic them difficult to bust. Although these workers got a paycheck, how much of it did they get to keep? They were already getting $1,050 taken out of their checks for substandard conditions.
You know, it is interesting to consider how little interest Americans show in this topic today. I guess it helps explain why so many people let African American slavery go on for so long here. If it didn't affect them directly, they didn't want to think about it. But take a moment to consider the ramifications of the fact that this story is not on page 1 every day until it's solved. Makes more of our painful history make sense. The people who could stop it then didn't care any more than the people who could stop it now. A depressing, but jarring, thought. I often have a similar thought about all the innocent men who are being exonerated and how most Mississippians don't seem to give a damn. And we're supposed to be more enlightened today.
If it didn't affect them directly, they didn't want to think about it. You hit the nail on the head. It's easy to be oblivious to something that you never had or may never have to face. Then again, some people may feel overwhelmed and think that they don't have the power to change it. I must admit that I feel overwhelmed when I hear these terrible stories. I can sign up for an e-newsletter and donate a few dollars, but I wish I could do more, which is when prayer comes in handy.