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Indian workers begin satyagraha

The workers will travel on foot through historically racist sections of the US, following in the footsteps of African-American freedom fighters.

world Updated: Mar 19, 2008 03:02 IST

“Watch out! We're coming!” they sang in Malayalam.

Over 100 Indian guest workers who broke an Indian-US human trafficking chain on Tuesday began a satyagraha to protest “the Indian government’s failure to protect Indian workers,” departing on foot from New Orleans on their way to confront Ambassador Ronen Sen in Washington, DC.

The workers, members of the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, will travel on foot through historically racist sections of the United States, following in the footsteps of African-American freedom fighters, who marched to win basic human rights. “Mahatma Gandhi’s salt satyagraha exposed the tyranny of the British salt tax system. Our guest worker satyagraha will unmask the US guest worker programme as a system of bonded labour,” worker and organiser Rajan Pazhambalakode said.

Letter to ambassador
Workers will arrive in DC on March 26 and demand a mass meeting with the Ambassador, whom they excoriated in a letter on Tuesday for abandoning them. “We write in response to your seven-day-long silence, followed by a 97-word letter that adds insult to the workers' injury as survivors of human trafficking. Apparently 18 months of human trafficking merited less than 100 words from you,” the workers wrote. “You leave us no choice but to launch a satyagraha so that the truth will come to light and justice will be served.”

“Our own government turned its back on us after we were treated like slaves,” said Sabulal Vijayan, one of over 500 Indian workers who were bound as forced labour to Gulf Coast marine construction company Signal International, as the group began their journey with a rally at the Department of Labor building in New Orleans. The workers allegedly paid $20,000 to Indian and US recruiters for false promises of work-based permanent residency in the US, and instead they received ten-month H2B guest worker visas and worked at Signal in deplorable conditions.

“The only answer is satyagraha,” Vijayan said. “The father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi, broke the salt tax of the British government with a satyagraha. We are following in his footsteps to get justice in this country,” Vijayan added. “In my own country I was free, but this programme made me a bonded labourer in the United States. Meanwhile my father died in India without me by his side. I don’t want compensation for my loss — I want justice for the Indians who will come here after me," said former Signal worker Paul S Konar.

Meeting supporters
The workers will meet with their growing network of supporters and allies as they travel through key sites of the US civil rights struggle, including Jackson, Mississippi; Selma, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; and Greensboro, North Carolina. They will arrive in DC on March 26 as US Congress prepares for a session in which a massive expansion of the guest worker programme is at the top of the agenda.

As reported by Hindustan Times, over 100 workers walked out from Signal on March 6 and demanded federal prosecution of the company and its US and Indian recruiters. The Department of Justice has since opened an official investigation into the workers' charges of human trafficking, and the workers have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the traffickers.

The group sent a list of demands to Ambassador Sen in their letter late Monday, including pressure on the US Department of State to restrict travel to India for Signal's US recruiters, as well as pressure on the US government to halt any expansion of the guest worker program until both governments have adopted an agreement that reflects the interests of workers, as well as companies and recruiters.

Wake-up call
Declared Saket Soni, director New Orleans' Workers Center for Racial Justice: “We intend to wake the Indian government up. The government must look these workers in their face and decide: On what terms is India willing to send its citizens to become indentured servants in the United States?”

Tracie Washington, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, promised solidarity with the marching workers.