Solidarity with the Signal workers

June 18, 2008

BOSTON--About 60 people gathered to hear testimonies last week from immigrant guest workers who walked off their jobs in protest of slave-like conditions at Signal International in March.

The meeting was organized by Matahari, an organization that opposes human trafficking; Jobs with Justice; the International Socialist Organization; Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia and Centro Presente among others.

The workers described being lured to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina by lawyers and recruiters for Signal International, who falsely promised them full-time jobs, green cards and the ability to bring their families to the U.S. Working 10-hour days for $14 to $18, they were forced to live in what the company called "labor camps," an enclosed area where hundreds of workers were crammed into small trailers as their living quarters.

In a trailer that could have fit a dozen people, 24 workers were forced to share four showers and two toilets. They were given food that was often inedible. On top of this, they were charged $1,050 every month.

When the workers complained, the company response was, "This is not India, this is the U.S."--implying that they were being offered a comparative paradise and that this was the best they should hope for.

One worker stated their inspiration for fighting back: "We're from the land of Gandhi and we live here in the land of King." They got word out to sympathetic activists. For many workers who were scared to fight back, new links with the Southern Poverty Law Center gave them the confidence to stand up for their rights.

The workers sought out solidarity with other workers in Mississippi as well, meeting with strawberry pickers and restaurant workers who also brought lawsuits against their employers. A walkout led to a 30-day march from Mississippi to Washington, D.C., with stops for solidarity meetings in Alabama, Georgia and Virginia.

This culminated in a hunger strike that recently ended, with the workers winning a demand for a meeting with the Department of Justice. Their main demands include asylum as workers subjected to human trafficking, and compensation and accountability from Signal International.

In introducing the workers, the speaker from Centro Presente framed the experience of Signal Workers in the context of the recent debates about immigration reform and whether our movement should support guest worker programs or not. The speaker argued that the reality for guest workers is second-class citizenship that legalizes exploitation. This only benefits employers, and the plight of Signal workers is proof positive of that.

The hunger strike's success in forcing the Department of Justice to agree to meet with the workers is an important initial victory. Workers spent an entire day lobbying members of Congress in Massachusetts last week. Looking to build further solidarity with other unions, passing resolutions in support of the workers and building local events that support and defend the workers will be important next steps.

When asked about the prospects for getting governments here and in India to give in to their demands, Justin, one of the workers responded, "This is a poor man's problem, isn't it? They aren't affected, but must be pushed and pressured."

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