28 March 2008

Mississippi Migrant Workers and a New Underground Railroad

For the past two centuries the stories of African and South Asian labor in their respective diasporas have overlapped in locations across the globe in a geography determined largely by the expansions and extractions of the British empire. This shared history is thorny, sometimes inspiring and other times dispiriting. It is also an unfinished history, as the struggle of South Asian guestworkers employed by Signal International attests. Holding up signs reading “I am a man,” a slogan borrowed from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, these workers have asserted their humanity in words and in action.

This morning I received an email from a friend (hat tip to Tom, if you’re still reading MTBE) announcing the support of African American churches for these workers.

Black churches, labor activists form underground railroad for Indian guest workers subjected to secret surveillance operation by immigration agents

ATLANTA, Georgia – Outraged by immigration authorities' covert surveillance and intimidation of exploited guest workers they call "the new slaves," a prominent Black Baptist pastor in Atlanta and labor allies have formed an underground railroad for 64 Indian workers making a "journey for justice" to Washington, DC.

"Make no mistake about it: these workers are victims of a system of modern-day slavery," said Rev. Timothy McDonald III, chief pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. "I granted refuge to these brave runaway slaves on Easter Sunday and will help protect them on their way to seek justice in Washington, DC."

The workers, who broke a human trafficking chain by Northrop Grumman subcontractor Signal International and US and Indian recruiters earlier this month, have faced surveillance and harassment by immigration officials since their departure on foot from New Orleans last Tuesday—including as they left the Civil Rights Memorial museum in Montgomery, AL, on Friday.

"Alabama ICE's attempt to intimidate human trafficking survivors as they walk in the footsteps of US freedom fighters is unconscionable," said New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice director Saket Soni, referring to the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "We expect Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen to demand that US immigration authorities call off secret surveillance and other actions that have an obviously terrifying impact on survivors of trafficking."

On Friday, the workers witnessed a suspicious man photographing them as they left the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery. When workers' advocates confronted the man, he turned aggressive and repeatedly refused to identify himself, though another member of an ICE surveillance team later identified the man as an ICE agent. A third agent, who identified himself as head of Alabama ICE Mickey Pledger, arrived and suggested that the workers had been under covert surveillance from the launch of their journey in New Orleans last Tuesday through their stop in Jackson, MS, on Thursday, saying: "Just because you don't see us doesn't mean we haven't been there."

The workers refused to be intimidated on Friday, marching through Montgomery for several hours after the encounter.

"We are walking to Washington, DC, to put an end to this system of modern-day slavery, and we won't let ICE frighten us into hiding," said Sabulal Vijayan, a former Signal worker and organizer from the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity.

Vijayan is one of over 500 Indian welders and pipe fitters who paid approximately $20,000 apiece to US and Indian recruiters for false promises of permanent residency in the US, and instead were forced to work for Signal on ten-month temporary H2B guest workers visas in Gulf Coast shipyards under deplorable conditions.

The ranks of the workers' allies and supporters have grown during the 8-day journey that they call a satyagraha in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Their allies include legendary civil rights leader Hollis Watkins, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jobs With Justice, the National Immigrant Law Center, the Low-Wage Migrant Worker Coalition, the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, and numerous other groups.

On Tuesday, March 25, the workers will hold a press event with Rev. McDonald, then walk through Atlanta with the support of Rev. McDonald and other religious and civil rights leaders before traveling by bus to the next point of refuge: a Black Baptist church in Greensboro, NC. They will arrive in Washington, DC on March 26, hold a mass meeting with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen on March 27, and demand high-level talks between the US and Indian governments on a bilateral labor agreement that will end abuses of the guest worker program.

The workers' experiences during their journey to DC are being detailed in a text and photo blog at www.neworleansworkerjustice.org.

I'm not much of one for chanting, but sometimes I quietly whisper to myself, "The people... united... will never be defeated."


nadia n said...

I heard about them on Al Jazeera a few weeks back, that's great to see.
-Uh the support they're getting, I meant, is great.

Anonymous said...

It's a good whisper, though keeping one's spirits up is, I find, harder and harder with age. All the same if you'd like to hear Frederic Rzewski's very moving set of piano variations on "El pueblo unido," and if you can access iTunes downloads, email me at

john [dot] burke [at] mindspring [dot] com

and I'll send you an mp3. There are at least three recorded versions, all good; I'm partial to Marc-André Hamelin myself.

Anonymous said...

It's telling how these workers' stories and incredible display of unity and strength move one to cheesy chants, isn't it? Sometimes truth and sentiment intersect beautifully. Wish you could see it unfold in person.