WASHINGTON — Though government immigration initiatives are often attacked for bringing foreign employees into the U.S., rarely are the immigrant workers the main critics.
On Wednesday, however, a dozen workers from India ended a four-week hunger strike that was meant to highlight their allegations that a guest worker program is abusing foreign laborers and shutting Americans out of decent jobs.
The workers had camped out in a tiny park across from the Indian Embassy in the shadow of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. They came to the U.S. to work in a Mississippi shipyard, lured by assurances of permanent residency. Instead, they said, they ended up in substandard living conditions, with reduced wages and promises of a green card that never came.
Their protest was designed to illuminate a guest worker program that critics say is rife with exploitation and can be repaired only with congressional action.
"As long as the laws that exist for these programs are unenforced and unenforceable, guest workers will continue to be exploited and American workers will continue to be displaced," said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, which helped plan the protest.
"The government should open its eyes and see the reality," said Paul Konar, who spoke to The Times on his 20th day without food. The 54-year-old former boxer was lying on his back, clad in a white T-shirt that read "Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity." He said he was feeling "very bad" and was later taken to a hospital for treatment.
The hunger strikers' immediate aim is to be legally permitted to remain in the U.S. while the Justice Department investigates allegations about their treatment in the H-2B visa program. The program brings non-farm workers to the U.S. on short-term contracts in such businesses as shipyards, summer resorts or clam-shucking operations. Their request to remain in the U.S. is unresolved.
But their larger goal is to have Congress reexamine the program, which they say is a vehicle for worker exploitation and trafficking, particularly in the ravaged Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Louisiana. Some of their allies on Capitol Hill, including Reps. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Pete Stark (D-Fremont.), have called the H-2B program "an example of modern slavery."
The Labor Department monitors how employers hire and house farm workers, but Congress gave it no direct authority to supervise H-2B visa holders. The Department of Homeland Security watches over the immigration aspects of the H-2B program, but "it's not our job to check whether they have overcrowded living situations or health situations," said spokeswoman Sharon Rummery.
Lawmakers who support the Indian laborers complain that H-2B visa holders do not get protections given to foreign farm workers, who carry an H-2A visa. Those workers get free housing and workers' compensation benefits, must be reimbursed for the cost of travel after working a specified number of hours and must receive at least 75% of the payment promised in their contract. They also are eligible for federally funded legal services.
None of those protections apply to H-2B workers. Because those visa holders are tied to one employer, "if [they] complain about abuses they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation," said Mary Bauer of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And because they often pay recruiters as much as $20,000 for the chance to come to the U.S. to work, as Konar and his colleagues did, they are often reluctant to complain and risk losing their jobs.
But one Indian worker, Sabulal Vijayan, did complain to Signal International Shipyard. "We were like pigs in a cage," he said of the trailer he shared with 24 others. "When we asked for [a] change, we were told: 'If you want to stay, you should sit down and shut up.' "
About 100 workers hired in late 2006 and early 2007 left their jobs in March after filing a federal lawsuit against Signal and labor recruiters.
Signal's position "is and always has been that the allegations are absolutely false," said company lawyer Erin Casey Hangartner. She said the workers were promised permanent-resident visas, or green cards, by unscrupulous brokers who took advantage of her firm's dire need for labor after Hurricane Katrina and the foreign workers' desire for a good job in the U.S.
The administration is now rewriting regulations for H-2B workers and farm laborers to make it easier for businesses to use the programs. One planned change would shift H-2B enforcement from Homeland Security to the Labor Department, where officials say they could monitor housing and safety regulations in a way that Homeland Security cannot.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has said that her department is aware of the Indian workers' situation.
"It is in response to cases like this that we have asked the DHS, which has the responsibility to enforce H-2B, to let us handle that," she said. "We're very familiar with this kind of enforcement . . . [and] we hope that will be happening very soon."