Shipyard workers organize to stop 21st century slavery

PASCAGOULA, Miss.-- More than 100 workers, carrying signs reading 'I Am A Man,' walked off the job at a Mississippi shipyard March 11 to protest conditions of slavery. Their struggle for justice comes 40 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., marched with striking Memphis sanitation workers carrying the same signs.

The shipyard workers – who are from India – have filed a class action suit against Signal International, a marine fabrication company; recruiters in India and the United States; and a New Orleans immigration lawyer, Malvern Burnett; accusing them of forced labor, human trafficking, fraud and civil rights violations.

The suit charges that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more than 500 Indian men 'were trafficked into the United States through the federal government's H-2B guestworker program to provide labor and services ... Plaintiffs were subjected to forced labor as welders, pipefitters, shipfitters, and other marine fabrication workers at Signal operations in Pascagoula, Mississippi and Orange, Texas.'

At the walkout last Thursday, the workers symbolically threw their hardhats over the fence as they left the shipyard, media reported, and sang the civil rights anthem, 'We Shall Overcome.'

Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, who served as an interpreter for the workers, said they talk of living 'like pigs in a cage' in a company-run 'work camp.'

One of the workers, Sabulal Vijayan, tried to organize his fellow workers last year and was fired. He then attempted suicide.

The exploitation began in 2006 when recruiters in New Orleans and Bombay, together with Signal, a Northrop Grumman subcontractor, used the post-Katrina labor shortage in the Gulf Coast to create a trafficking racket within the guest worker program that President Bush wants to expand, the Workers Center said in a news release. Workers paid up to $20,000 to get jobs in the United States.

'They promised us green cards and permanent residency, and instead gave us 10-month visas and made us live like animals in company trailers, 24 to a room,' Vijayan said. 'We were trapped between an ocean of debt at home and constant threats of deportation from our bosses in Mississippi.'

When the workers began to organize last year, Signal sent armed guards to detain and fire the organizers, the Workers Center said.

The lawsuit, filed by the Louisiana Justice Institute, Southern Poverty Law Center and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, charges violations of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act; the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ('RICO'); the Civil Rights Act of 1866; the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871; and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

'The U.S. State Department calls it 'a repulsive crime' when recruiters and employers in other parts of the world bind guest workers with crushing debts and threats of deportation,' said Soni. 'This is precisely what is happening on the Gulf Coast.'

The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages and injunctions to prevent future exploitation of workers. While the court action moves forward, the workers pledge to continue more demonstrations to call attention to the treatment of workers on the Gulf Coast.

This report is adapted from information on , the blog of the South Asian journalists association, and www.Sepiamutiny.com.

This article originally appeared at .