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Modern-day slaves in a globalised world

By Shamita Das Dasgupta

Blue-collar workers from developing countries often sell everything they own to get a job in the land of milk and honey. An increasing number of these ‘guest workers’ in the US are being exploited and forced to live in inhuman conditions, with the constant threat of deportation

On March 9, 2007, the Indian immigrant community in the United States of America was shaken up by a media report on trafficking. It did not attract widespread media attention and was flashed only briefly on select television channels. It would have had sustained coverage in the media had it been a story about a group of vulnerable Third World girls being trafficked into the commercial sex industry.  

In fact, the story was about a group of Indian men staging a protest against “slave-like working conditions” in Mississippi. On the surface, it appeared to be the grumblings of a few disgruntled employees, as some of the men were on the verge of being deported by the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, formerly the INS). The men were ‘guest workers’ in the country. The concept of ‘guest workers’, sponsored by then President George Bush, had only just begun to seep into the public consciousness. This incident brought the issue home for the successful Indian community. 

The story began with a simple grievance against poor working conditions by a few foreign employees. But it was a lot more complicated than that. A group of Indian workers at Signal International Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, called Saket Soni, an organiser with the New Orleans Workers’ Centre for Racial Justice, and complained that the company had forcibly imprisoned six of their colleagues. The six Indian workers were picked up from their homes by Signal International’s security guards in an early morning raid, and had been corralled in a ‘TV room’ without bathroom privileges. The men were being held against their will. When asked, Signal International stated that it had received a nod from the government for such treatment of its ‘guest worker’ employees who were about to be deported. It was a precaution against the men running away. Signal International was going to hand the men over to the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that very day. The company believed it was well within its legal rights as an employer. 

The concept of ‘guest workers’ has a long history in the US. Although ‘guest workers’ are actually temporary labour who come into the country for a fixed period of time to contractually work on certain jobs in particular industries, and are supposed to leave when their time is up, the concept is certainly not new or temporary. Indeed, the silent and invisible contribution of ‘guest workers’ is the basis of the United States’ historically thriving economy. 

The most famous of these ‘guest worker’ initiatives was the Bracero programme instituted in 1942 after agreements between the US and Mexico which allowed thousands of Mexican workers into the US to meet the growing labour needs in the farming and agricultural industries. The programme continued until 1964 as an alternative to the illegal entry of Mexicans into the country. Nevertheless, along with the ‘guest workers’, large numbers of Mexicans did enter the US as illegal labour, a trend that continues to this day. To counter the flow of illegal immigrants, a programme called Wetback was instituted to round up undocumented workers and forcibly deport them. The programme gave its name to Mexican migrant workers who became known as wetbacks. 

During the mid-19th century, groups of people from Japan, India (then undivided), and Mexico came in waves to work in the US. Many came with the idea of accumulating wealth and returning to their home countries. Some eventually did. But many stayed on to become a part of the immigrant country. 

Indians who immigrated to the US after the 1965 liberalisation of immigration policies were witness to the flood of ‘guest workers’ around the turn of the millennium. Fearing the total breakdown of computerised systems, thousands of Indian information technologists were given temporary work visas to come to the US and fix the anticipated problems. Thus began Operation Y2K. Although that particular need was met, the demand for temporary workers in specialty occupations such as IT, sciences, and medicine continued to encourage the import of highly skilled people to the US, with India being a rich resource. In 2005, of all H1B visas issued to temporary workers in skilled occupations, 25% were from India. This trend has continued despite growing anger among Americans at the high percentage of skilled jobs going to foreign-born temporary workers.

 

But the focus on temporary skilled workers in specialty occupations hides another side of the story of ‘guest workers’, whose skills are considered blue-collar. These workers enter the US on H2B or H1A visas. H2B visas are usually issued to non-agricultural workers, while H1A are delivered to agricultural workers. Both are given out for the purposes of meeting seasonal recurring needs, intermittent needs, one-time needs, and peak-load needs. The protagonists of this story are workers on H2B visas who had come to work as welders and pipe fitters for Signal International Shipyard in Mississippi. They came to the US as ‘guest workers’, lured by the promise of lucrative jobs and permanent residency. 

Global Resources Inc, a US-based placement agency, recruited 290 Indian workers in situ by collaborating with local agencies. The men paid more than $15,000 each to local agencies and a deputy sheriff of Mississippi who was also the president of Global Resources. Much of the money was charged as processing fees. The money the individuals paid was often borrowed from loan sharks, obtained by selling family homes, or represented a family’s total savings. As workers in a globalised world, the men were seeking opportunities to secure a financially stable future in the land of milk and honey. 

At the worksite, the men were paid $18.50 an hour for eight hours of work per day; however, $35 was deducted daily as living expenses. Signal International required the men to live in houses provided by the company, and to eat at the company cafeteria. The ‘houses’ were nothing more than windowless trailers where 20-24 men lived together and slept in bunk beds. The promised hourly rate was not secure either. The Indian agencies had promised Signal International first class welders, and the company’s own staff had tested the recruits’ skills before they were allowed to travel to the US. All the men passed the Signal test. However, once they reached the worksite, Signal tried to cut some of their wages to $13.50 per hour, claiming lower-than-expected skills. The company forced 30 workers to agree to a lower wage contract, holding the threat of deportation over their heads. 

As the men settled in, Signal accused the employees of accumulating ‘garbage’ in the trailers and using water from the coolers to clean up after using the toilet. It decided to ‘punish’ them by removing the water coolers. When the workers wanted to move to residences of their own, to save on living expenses, Signal denied their requests. Ultimately, Signal decided to round up and deport the ‘trouble-makers’, the employees who complained and demanded better living conditions and treatment. The constant threat of deportation was too much for some of the men who had staked all their families’ assets to come to the US. One man tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists. 

Such inhuman exploitation is a part of being a ‘guest worker’. The standard power differential between employer and employee is exacerbated due to the employees’ vulnerabilities brought on by an eagerness to remain in the US and to make money for their families. Employers, on the other hand, can use their employees’ fears of deportation, social shame of being terminated from a US-based job, and losing all they ever had. Although the labour rights that all US employees enjoy also protect ‘guest workers’, these are near impossible to implement as the employees’ very existence in the country depends on the amiability of the employers. As a ‘guest worker’ who has given up a lot to come to the US, an employee can hardly sue an employer and demand legal justice. There are many more prospective ‘guest workers’ waiting eagerly to take his place. 

The plight of the Indian ‘guest worker’ in Mississippi is certainly not an isolated one. A report in 2004 illustrated the situation of H2A visa holders working temporarily in the agricultural sector, in the US. Nearly 170 workers from Thailand paid $8,000 each to local recruiters who sign up ‘guest workers’ for Global Horizons, a California-based employment company that recruits heavily in South and South East Asia. The men were hired to work in orchards in the northwest of the US. They were put up in substandard housing with very few amenities and lived in terrible squalor; they were not even paid the agreed amount for their work. Speaking little English, the men did not know where to seek help. 

Along with agriculture, forestry is an employment source for foreign ‘guest workers’. Recruiters issue H2B visas to unskilled non-agricultural workers who cut down trees with chainsaws and replant incredible numbers in good and bad weather. Once in the US, they work for contractors who often pile them into overcrowded vehicles and transport them from place to place. Accidents happen frequently but the employees are not free to shop for better employment as the validity of their work permits depends on their staying with the original sponsoring employer. Such restrictions make ‘guest workers’ more vulnerable to recruiter and employer abuse and exploitation. 

Regardless of the pressures and constraints, workers tend not to take such mistreatment lying down. Loggers in the northwest came together to contact immigrants’ rights organisations that brought class action legal suits (equivalent to a PIL) against Global Horizons and have forced some changes in the company’s practices. 

For the Indian ‘guest workers’ at Signal, protest came with a price. The men had started to gather at a local church to discuss how they could recover from the company the huge sums they had paid to come to the US. They named the group Signal H2B Workers. According to them, once the meetings became visible Signal executed an early morning raid, rounding up the leaders and immediately starting deportation proceedings. The workers struggled to bring public attention to their plight, and then went on a hunger strike in 2008 to find justice. Fortunately, they did not have to stand alone for long. Asian American Legal Defense Fund, Southern Poverty Law Centre, individual labour attorneys and community organisers offered legal help and other assistance to support the workers’ fight against injustice. Lawsuits have been filed under the Anti-Slavery Human Trafficking Act. 

Although sporadic, such struggles are important milestones in establishing the rights of international workers in a globalised world. With a waning US economy and the resultant antipathy towards immigrants and foreign workers, it remains to be seen how much justice ‘guest workers’ can squeeze out in an unequal world. 

(Shamita Das Dasgupta is co-founder of Manavi (New Jersey), the first organisation in the US to focus on violence against South Asian immigrant women. She has been engaged in advocacy to end violence against women for nearly 30 years. Dasgupta is currently teaching as an adjunct professor at NYU Law School. In addition to several articles, she is the author of four books, The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (1995, Interlink Books, USA); A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America (1998, Rutgers University Press, USA); Body Evidence: Intimate Violence Against South Asian Women in America (2007, Rutgers University Press, USA); and Mothers for Sale: Women in Kolkata’s Sex Trade (2009, Dasgupta-Alliance, India)   

Infochange News & Features, December 2009