The 120 workers who walked out of Signal International plants on the Gulf Coast this week have encountered a new freedom. After more than a year of living in conditions they describe as inhuman, the workers are fighting back.
After protesting outside the Signal facility in Pascagoula, Mississipi, the workers caravanned an hour and half west to the city of New Orleans. They celebrated their freedom and cooked a feast in the kitchens of their hotels.
But when they walked out of the conditions they describe as unjust, they walked into a questionable immigration status.
They had traveled to the US under temporary visas as part of the guest worker programme. The terms of the visas state that if they leave the employment of the sponsoring company, they no longer have legal status in the US.
At 9:30 pm on Saturday, four of the workers had assembled at the New Orleans Workers’ Racial Justice Coalition headquarters a few miles from the hotel. Suddenly, Saket Soni, the coalition’s director, got a startling phone call – four New Orleans police cars were parked outside the hotel and, it was feared, they were looking for the workers.
Soni, the lawyers and the leaders of the workers crouched in a corner of the lobby, talking in whispers and watching an NOPD officer at the front desk. They decided there were three courses of action — waiting for the officer to leave, moving the lawyers into the hotel with the workers or approaching the officer and explaining their situation.
Soni and the lawyer approached the officer, explaining that they represented a large group staying in the hotel that did not speak fluent English and were fearful of being approached by police who would not be able to cross the language barrier.
The officer explained he was not there in search of the workers, but flirting with the front desk receptionist.
The group relaxed, cracking jokes. But even as the whole room chuckled about the lawyers inability to eat the food the workers had prepared for dinner, the severity of the situation remained.
Walking out of the Signal facility was difficult, but the road ahead remains equally difficult.