Government goes after company that abused "guest workers"

Statement by Saket Soni, Executive Director, New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. Many of the workers trafficked by Signal International are members of the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center.

April 20, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Signal International, LLC, a major Mississippi marine fabrication company, for its discrimination, segregation, and subjugation of hundreds of Indian guestworkers after Hurricane Katrina. The EEOC’s action is a vindication of a long fight for justice that started in labor camps in 2007. We applaud the EEOC for its action, the workers for carrying on an extraordinary campaign, and hundreds of civil rights and labor leaders who stood with the workers while they were under attack.

In 2007, the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice held clandestine meetings with workers who were trafficked by Signal into “man-camps” in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. As meetings gained momentum, Signal retaliated, sending armed guards into the labor camps to quell the organizing. Signal attempted to privately deport workers involved in the organizing efforts. In response, workers went on strike.

The EEOC responded by starting an investigation. Four years later, they’ve filed suit against Signal. Their actions are in sharp contrast to another government agency – the Department of Homeland Security – whose officials colluded with Signal in retaliation against the workers’ courageous attempts to organize. As reported in the New York Times, company officials testified that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials advised Signal International’s illegal private deportations, and then worked with and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)  to do the company’s dirty work, offering to deport workers who “pushed the system” to access their basic civil and labor rights.

The workers pushed anyway. They escaped from the labor camps, marched from New Orleans to Washington, testified before Congress, and went on a 29-day-long hunger strike. Last year, as reported in the New York Times, exposure of ICE’s collusion with Signal International led to a legislative response: Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the POWER Act, which would protect immigrant workers from employers who use immigration as a weapon to undercut organizing.

These guestworkers were organizing to access the basic civil rights and labor protections that should transcend race and immigration status in the United States. For thousands of guestworkers, and millions of immigrant workers who are excluded from the right organize by race and the threat of deportation – but who organize anyway – the EEOC’s action is an important vindication of the right to organize.

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