Facing South

Welder frees workers from Texas labor camps

Facing South
Facing South
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aby_raju.pngBy Viji Sundaram, New America Media

With the proceeds from the sale of his parents' home in India, loans
from aunts and uncles, and the money he'd saved while working as a
welder in the Middle East, Aby K. Raju (at right in photo) was able to scrape together the
$20,000 the job recruiter wanted from him in exchange for a job in the
United States and a green card.

The recruiter painted a rosy
picture of life in the United States -- a well-paid job as a welder at
the shipyard company Signal International, a shared apartment with three
other workers, transportation to and from work and good food. Around
500 other welders and pipefitters from all over India and Gulf countries
were lured by the same recruitment firm with a similar promise.

The
offer was hard to pass up, and the men arrived in the United States in
2006 and 2007, filled with hope to make a comfortable living, which
would allow them to bring over their families in a few years.

But
shortly after their arrival, those hopes evaporated as they faced
oppressive living conditions and other broken promises at the two Signal
shipyards in Texas and Mississippi.

Last month, Raju was recognized for overcoming extraordinary risks in helping the workers fight their way to freedom.

He
is one of this year's 15 recipients of the Freedom From Fear Award, an
honor given by the nonprofit group Public Interest Projects (PIP) to
recognize accomplishments made on behalf of immigrants and refugees.

Raju's
courage "inspired workers, civil rights leaders, labor movement
leaders, members of Congress and the media into awareness and action,"
noted a PIP press release.

"We came with great hopes," said Raju,
now 34, and living in Macon, Ga., with his wife and 4-year-old child. "Those hopes were snatched away from us."

He was assigned to
Signal's Orange, Texas, shipyard, but only as a part-time worker, like
many of his fellow Indian workers. They made significantly less than
their white colleagues.

He and his Indian American colleagues
were given housing in "labor camp-like" conditions, as he describes it.
They were packed in cabins, with 24 bunks and two bathrooms to a cabin.
The company docked $1,050 a month toward rent from each employee's
paycheck.

The canteen food was so salty and oily that most of
the men "survived on frozen foods," Raju said, noting that company
officials paid no heed when they complained about the food or the
housing.

"We asked if we could rent apartments (on our own) near
the shipyard, and they said we could but that they would still deduct
$1,050 in rent," Raju said.

Because their H2B temporary work
visas did not permit them to transfer to other companies, the men had no
choice but to stick it out -- until Raju and a handful of his fellow
workers began organizing in 2007, often under cover of darkness.

"After
work, we went from trailer to trailer and talked to other workers,"
Raju said, noting: "Some of them were too scared to support us."

For
most of the workers, going back to India was not an option because they
had sold everything to come to the United States. Meanwhile, Signal
reneged on its promise to sponsor their green cards to get permanent
residency.

After several clandestine meetings, Raju and about 250
other workers took a leap of faith and escaped from the labor camps.
For five days, the men traveled by foot to New Orleans and then on to
Washington, D.C., on a "satyagraha walk," a la Mahatma Gandhi.

Many
of the workers began a 23-day hunger strike to demand redress and
attract media attention. That got them a meeting with U.S. Immigration
and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. But ICE "ganged up with Signal
against us," Raju said.

Despite the threat of deportation hanging
over their heads, Raju and his fellow workers never let up in their
fight for justice. Raju became the first H2B worker to testify before
Congress.

"We didn't want to keep quiet," said Raju in a
telephone interview from Georgia, where he is working as a welder. "We
wanted to let the public know about ICE's actions -- instead of helping
us they were using scare tactics against us."

With free legal
help from the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, two years
ago Raju and other members of the New Orleans-based Alliance of Guest
Workers for Dignity got the Obama administration to grant them legal
status and allow them to be reunited with their families in the United
States.

Earlier this year, attorneys filed a class action lawsuit
on behalf of the workers from India, who were described in the lawsuit
as victims of "human trafficking" and organized crime -- claims that if
proved would make it the largest trafficking case in U.S. history,
according to media reports.

The civil suit alleges that a group
of employers, immigration lawyers and labor recruiters in India, New
Orleans, Texas and Mississippi conspired to deceive and exploit the
workers in a multinational scam. No one in this case, however, has been
charged with any crime.

* * *

The first Freedom from Fear Awards
honors "ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of
courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees -- individuals who have
taken a risk, set an example, and inspired others to awareness or
action." The Freedom from Fear Award was created by philanthropic
leaders Geri Mannion and Taryn Higashi and administered and produced by
Public Interest Projects. For more information, visit www.freedomfromfearaward.com.

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