Indian workers take their protest to White House

April 1st, 2008 - 11:08 am ICT by admin  

By Arun Kumar
Washington, April 1 (IANS) Nearly 100 Indian workers alleging they were lured to come to the United States by false promises of permanent jobs took their protest against a “flawed” guest worker programme to the gates of the White House. The workers marched through a steady drizzle Monday to the presidential mansion, raised slogans and tore up photocopies of their H-2B visas in a symbolic rejection of the guest worker programme.

They are demanding a Congressional investigation of Signal International, the Mississippi-based marine construction firm that had hired them from India through Indian and American recruiters. The protest has come at a time when the Bush administration is reportedly contemplating an expansion of the guest worker programme.

American NGO groups backing the workers argue that unless the H-2B programme is overhauled, companies like Signal International will exploit foreign workers and subject them to conditions of bonded labour - a charge that has been denied by the Mississippi firm.

“It’s time that US Congress understood that US companies are using this guest worker programme as a legal sanction for forced labour,” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Centre for Racial Justice.

Over the next couple of days, the workers plan to apprise some key lawmakers of their plight. The advocacy groups said meetings have also been lined up with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

“US Congress should ask the CEO of Signal International some hard questions,” said Sony Suleka, an organizer with the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity and a former Signal worker.

“Why did the company order armed guards to pull workers out of bed at 5 a.m. and threaten them with deportation for organizing? Why did company officials terrorise one of the organizers to the point of attempted suicide?”

Suleka is one of over 500 Indian welders and pipe fitters who allegedly paid approximately $20,000 apiece to US and Indian recruiters for false promises of permanent residency in the US.

“When the US government allows employers to compete for the cheapest worker, everyone loses,” said Sarita Gupta, national director of Jobs With Justice. “These workers have woken us up to the ugly reality of the US guest worker programme.”

The workers, who arrived in Washington last week after a nine-day satyagraha, or “journey for justice” from New Orleans to Washington DC staged marched to the Indian Embassy after a protest rally at nearby Dupont Circle.

During a three-hour-meeting with the Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen, they demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into their case. Sen gave the workers a patient hearing and promised to take up their grievances but only though appropriate and established channels.

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