Saket Soni and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice have beaten the drum in the more than four years since Hurricane Katrina about the abuses to south Asian guest workers pulled into the shipyards during the desperate labor supplies after the storm. Lawsuits against Signal International now coming to light reveal clearly the dark underbelly of the H-2B temporary guest worker program, and why it is so clearly not a solution to the immigration crises in our country.
Primarily Indian metalworkers paid brokers up to $20,000 USD, which is literally a king’s ransom in rupees, to undertake the work. They expected and put up with the terrible living conditions common in a labor camp in the shipyard, especially in the post-Katrina. What they also expected was that promises of a green card which would allow them to continue working in the USA would also be delivered, since that was so clearly the line that recruited them to the shipyards. Unfortunately, as any reader would know, that line was a total line.
As the 500 workers agitated about their conditions, circumstances, and the injustice of it all, supported by assistance from the Workers’ Center and national advocacy by NDLON, the National Day Labor Organizing Network, and its leaders, Pablo Alvarado and Chris Newman, the boss according to the court papers and an article by Julia Preston in The New York Times, saw the Indians as “whiners” and wanted to target and remove the ringleaders. Where did the boss go for advice in this area? Well, right to agents of ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement outfit so notorious throughout the land.
The advice was a classic labor busting technique more reminiscent of the old organizer tales of the Wobblies tarred and feathered and ridden out on the rails than anything else. The agent according to the boss said, “Don’t give them any advance notice. Take them all out of the line on the way to work; get their personal belongings; get them in a van, and get their tickets, and get them to the airport, and send them back to India.”
It didn’t work out so well in this one situation since folks like the Workers’ Center were all over this bad boy, but I have to wonder how many thousands of times this advice would have yielded exactly the expected result? This situation may see some justice through the courts, but this is rare.
The notion that we can build a “guest worker” program on the backs of desperate immigrant workers, almost classically exploitative labor contractors and recruiters, and still make a big deal out of the Statue of Liberty and any core values of the United States as a nation of immigrants, is the cruelest irony underlying all of this.