[PAST] 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

In the picture, a delegation of Indian guestworkers that came to Massachusetts to meet with state representatives to congress and the senate and to inform about their struggle. The event took place in the offices of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee/USC, Central Square Cambridge.

WASHINGTON, DC – On Wednesday, June 11, 2008, at 12 p.m., Indian labor trafficking survivors held a rally at the Department of Justice (DoJ) headquarters, where they 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.

"Today we are suspending a hunger strike that has brought us more power than any group of guest workers in the United States has ever had," said Sabulal Vijayan, an organizer with the Indian Workers' Congress. "Twenty members of US Congress have written to the Department of Justice on our behalf. Congressman Dennis Kucinich has committed to holding hearings into abuses of guest workers by Signal International and companies like it. With our hunger strike, we have won concrete actions that will help protect future workers from the nightmare of forced labor we suffered."

The vast international support the workers' hunger strike for justice against the labor trafficking chain of Signal International and its recruiters is clear from the guests at Wednesday's rally, which were to include:

  • US Congressman Dennis Kucinich
  • Indian Member of Parliament S.K. Kharaventhan (Palani, Tamil Nadu, Congress Party)
  • Communist Party of India Politboro member and head of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions M.K. Pandhe
  • Jon Hiatt, General Counsel of US labor federation AFL-CIO
  • John Flynn, President of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers

In addition, US labor rights group Jobs With Justice will hold solidarity actions in 10 cities across the US . Last week, Jobs With Justice members wrote over 9,000 letters to US Congress in support of the workers.

The workers stressed, however, that their victory is not yet complete, as the Department of Justice has failed to release them from the terror of deportation by granting them continued presence in the US to participate in the official investigation into their case.

"We are shocked that for all the bravery we have shown in escaping Signal's labor camps, sacrificing our ability to work or be with our families for the sake of bringing the company and its recruiters to justice, and risking our lives with a hunger strike, the Department of Justice has turned a deaf ear to us," said Rajan Pazhambalakode, a former Signal Worker who is now an organizer with the Indian Workers' Congress.

"We have faith, however, that the allies who heard us in US Congress, organized labor, and civil rights and religious communities will help us continue to build power and increase the moral pressure on the Department of Justice until it offers us the protection we need," Mr. Pazhambalakode said.

Shortly after the workers broke their fast Wednesday, a delegation of 10 allies entered the DoJ and demand a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, calling on him to respond to the workers' demand for continued presence.

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.

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 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.

To follow these courageous workers' story go to: www.neworleansworkerjustice.org