May 23, 2008

Mississippi Workers Hunger Strike: Day 10... to what end?

At this point, many people in the progressive desi/Asian American community have heard about the Indian H-2B workers who were brought in to work at a shipyard in Mississippi for post-Katrina rebuilding. They faced brutal, abusive conditions, and it’s pretty clear that they were trafficked – misled by recruiters to pay thousands of dollars on a fraudulent assertion that they would get permanent residency and the ability to sponsor their families within months. There are much better accounts of this, such as this excellent recent piece by Svati Shah in SAMAR Magazine, so I’m not going into details here.

The basics details: some 100+ workers (of the total 550 at Signal International) walked off the job at the beginning of this year, risking so much but stepping up because they couldn’t take it anymore. They had connected with the New Orleans Worker Center, headed by (young) South Asian leftist Saket Soni from Chicago. The workers have since engaged in a number of actions, including a satyagraha “march” from the deep South to Washington, D.C., where they stopped to meet and build solidarity with civil rights leaders and African American communities on the way. They rallied in D.C. and presented their requests and demands to the Indian Embassy (for the Indian government to intervene on their behalf as it has with nations in the Middle East), DOJ (for the granting of continued presence status), and members of Congress. That was at the end of March. And nothing moved between that time and May.

So since May 14, about 30 workers went back to D.C., escalating their campaign into a hunger strike, where 5 workers swore off of food until their pleas for intervention and justice were heard. It has been 9 days. While more workers have come from New Orleans to join in the hunger strike and/or to participate in actions this week, three of the original hunger-striking workers have been hospitalized, and it’s not really clear what the end point to this process will be. There are a number of supporters who have been around the workers in D.C. from the beginning, but they are tired, and morale seems low.

From a distance, and perhaps to the bookish/armchair revolutionary who longs to be part of an epic struggle against the oppressive state like third world uprisings around the world and even the attempts in the America of the 60s and 70s, the workers’ struggles and brave actions may seem heroic and completely worth supporting: this is the people uniting for a common cause against oppression after all. I know I felt that, even though I haven’t had any real connection to what’s been happening.

But I’m also beginning to wonder about some things, particularly with the organizing strategy. I’ve heard Saket Soni speak a couple of times in person about this campaign, and I’ve seen a bunch of videos through the campaign blog where you can hear his rhetoric and see the strong united front of the workers behind him. He hits all the right notes, connecting this terrible situation with the legacies of slavery and indentured servitude. He rallies the workers behind him and gives what seems to be adequate space to hear the workers’ voices and stories. It is hard not to admire an organizer who is fighting something that is this criminally unjust, and it is easy to hear the workers’ individual stories and think that while they are the brave people taking the risks, the organizers are critical to help them achieve justice.

But what’s really going on here? While the work of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice seems to be legitimate, and the workers seem to be participating, are people asking critical questions of this campaign? For example, the workers are seeking continued presence while their trafficking claims are investigated – at this point, their immigration status is not clear, and when pressed by media or others, the organizers, Soni in particular, state that “it is our belief that they are the victims of trafficking and should be granted continued presence in the United States.” That’s fine – but what is their actual status, and what risk are they running by being explicitly visible? I’m not saying they should hide and let the corporation get away with this – I’m asking if the workers realize that if they are found to have unlawful presence and are deported by ICE, they could be prevented from re-entering the U.S. for up to 10 years. This is a real impact that they should know: but does it run counter to the organizing strategy, and therefore, is it diminished in importance when the workers are briefed before making decisions?

As a second point, what is the narrative that they are crafting with this series of actions? Calling the bus journey from the South a satyagraha sounds great – invoking a particular (innocuous old man) image of Gandhi that may rally South Asians (or at least garden variety liberals) to the workers’ cause. It’s good media sense to tap into something familiar this way and invoke that the workers’ struggle for justice is neither isolated nor unfamiliar to South Asians. But then is the hunger strike a natural step in the actual organizing campaign, or is it the next step to get the press interested? Who are the targets that are supposed to be moved by this hunger strike?

1) The DOJ isn’t going to bend for this one case – no matter how egregious – because that sets it up to do the same for all of the other folks in similar or even more dire situations.

2) The Indian Embassy is too concerned about India’s endgame to wedge itself between the U.S. and Pakistan, get on the U.N. Security Council, and get recognized as a world nuclear and economic superpower with the help of the U.S. It’s not going to jeopardize those goals with the U.S. on account of these workers, no matter how terrible the situation. Let the U.S. courts sort it out: there’s big business to attend to.

3) The Congressional targets need to be made much more directly aware of the crisis and how they can intervene by pushing for an investigation and looking at the H2B program as a whole. But I can’t really see action alerts for allies to raise the pressure, and will the targets care if non-citizens are starving themselves for justice when they have constituents (and voters) who may be anywhere from ambivalent to wholly hostile towards migrant workers “taking their jobs”?

Basically, how is the hunger strike going to move hearts and minds, and if it’s not, why the hell are you endangering the workers’ health, safety, and ability to stay in the country for non-achievable goals (within the context of this particular timeframe).

On top of these strategy questions, which may be discussed internally and not disclosed to the rest of us, I also want to ask the question of how much power the workers actually have in making these decisions. It seems like they support Saket Soni and the Center, but what do we know? And what I’ve seen from desi and other left groups is fairly uncritical – just either staying away from the issue, or just forwarding along the information as an FYI. Has anyone actually directly asked Soni and the other organizers from the Center about this? My contacts who have visited the workers a few times have said that the workers have a lot of questions about the effectiveness of this campaign, the plan for the future, and legitimate concerns about how this whole thing has been managed, but that the questions are deflected internally, and things haven’t changed.

Are we giving Soni a free pass because he’s a man of color who is working with co-ethnics rather than a white wo/man in a community of color? Is he getting that free pass from white “progressives” who recognize their own privilege/are fearful of being called out and so they don’t criticize/come out publicly, and brown/black/yellow “progressives” because there is always a question of our own legitimacy in this kind of work, regardless of the racial/ethnic bonds we may have with the communities that we work with – and we don’t want the tables to be turned and the microscope to be on us and our work?

But what about the workers, then? Is the cult of personality enough to protect someone and his possibly flawed and dangerous strategy – or should we recognize that we too would be partially responsible if something terrible – that was avoidable – happens to the workers after they’ve taken the brave steps to leave the abusive work conditions and speak out? Why aren’t more people asking these questions instead of just “supporting” the struggle? Are we supporting the idea of the struggle – or the workers who are taking this effort on their backs: is it the same thing?

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