A Glimmer of Hope From the Gulf Coast

The election season in the United States has seen the presidential candidates winding their way around a collapsing economy and an endless occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have just published a new book entitled The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. The military conflict in Iraq alone will cost the U.S. $12 billion a month, money that could have been spent to shore up the dollar and protect those people whose homes are being foreclosed.

The U.S. Congress, if it could not stop the fiscal bleeding into the military, at least blocked the George W. Bush administration’s attempt to make permanent Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republican candidate, John McCain, backs the Bush tax cuts, as he does the occupation.

The Democrats are loath to support the tax cuts but cannot find their way around stopping the occupation. Their economic message is equal parts populism and demagogy. On trade, the Democrats rightly criticize the free trade agreements and out-of-control globalization, but their emphasis is not so much on the power given over to corporations as to the countries that are now home to manufacturing (China, Mexico) or business process outsourcing (India). China and India are the scapegoats for the loss of jobs in the heartland of the U.S. (in States such as Ohio).

On the Republican side there is less anxiety about outsourcing and more about immigration. The debate here is toxic. Tom Tancredo, who led the charge in the early months of the presidential primary, framed the discussion around how best to keep “illegal immigrants” out of the U.S. and to deport those who are already here. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the construction firms that won contracts to rebuild the city hired many temporary migrants and some undocumented workers.

The city’s Mayor, Ray Nagin, took a Tancredo turn when he asked, “How do I make sure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?” Much the same kind of anti-immigrant sentiment came from Louisiana’s Senator Mary Landrieu, who said, “While my State experiences unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression, it is unconscionable that illegal workers would be brought into Louisiana aggravating our employment crisis and depressing earnings for our workers.”

Both Nagin and Mary Landrieu are Democrats, but their animus to illegal workers shows how pervasive the Republican discussion on immigration has become. The system that benefits from reconstruction on the cheap is never part of the discussion.

On outsourcing and on immigration, the two parties tend to blame either foreign countries or undocumented workers. The corporations that move their capital overseas or that chose to bring in undocumented workers get off with minimal censure. Too much discussion about corporate responsibility for this mess might mean fewer dollars into the campaign coffers of the two major parties.

A worker engaged in demolition in New Orleans, Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the construction firms that won contracts to rebuild the city hired temporary migrants and some undocumented workers instead of the displaced African-Americans.

Breaking news from Louisiana confounds this arid debate on immigration and outsourcing. On March 6, a hundred workers from a Pascagoula shipyard walked off the job. These skilled workers came to the U.S. from India (mainly Kerala) to work for Signal International, an oil services firm that overhauls and repairs oil rigs. Signal did not directly seek out these workers. Rather, an Indian jobber, Dewan Consultants, advertised for these jobs, recruited and assembled the workers who then came to the U.S.

The workers’ grievances are against Signal and Dewan. They claim that Signal houses them poorly and treats them as illegal laborers. Dewan promised them that they would be on the road to the green card (or permanent residency); this has not come to pass. To get here, the workers paid $20,000, and if they leave their jobs with Signal, they would have to return to India. In other words, their right to express their opinions is circumscribed by a system that virtually indentures them to the company.

A year ago, Signal fired Sabulal Vijayan when he voiced his complaints. “I slit my wrists to kill myself. There was no option for me.” Vijayan is now working with the U.S. authorities and with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) on the case. Signal denies any culpability, and so does Dewan Consultants. This Mumbai-based firm told Hindustan Times: “If they found the living conditions unfit, they should have come back then, instead of making a hue and cry now.” Dewan is off the job. It has been replaced by S. Mansur & Company, which The Times of India suggests might be a front for Dewan itself. Now the U.S. and Indian governments are looking into the case.

Signal’s story is not novel to New Orleans and Louisiana. In recent years, similar stories have been brought to the fore by the NOWCRJ, which itself was formed in 2005 by local activists who were alarmed by the miserable state of labor relations in the State around the post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction.

Shortly after the hurricane, the federal government suspended the laws that forced employers in disaster-hit areas to pay workers the prevailing wage rates. In addition, the contracts for the reconstruction went to firms that had no intention of hiring the displaced population of the city. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, all signs indicated that the property owners and the political class wanted to take advantage of the moment to cleanse the city of its African-American poor and to make the city a park for tourism and commerce. Stuck in Houston or in federal disaster relief trailers, working-class African-Americans were not able to return to the city. The few choices for these displaced workers got even fewer when the contractors refused to hire them.

In a valuable study (And Injustice for All: Workers’ Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans) published in 2006, the NOWCRJ assembled stories of African-American workers who had been shut out from reconstruction. Marlon Tibbs, a construction worker, told the NOWCRJ: “I was trying to find work. They looked over the people who were born and raised here.” Drawing from such interviews, the NOWCRJ concluded, “Blacks have been and are being excluded from employment in redevelopment jobs, particularly in the construction industry.”

Instead of hiring local residents and helping them get back on their feet, the construction firms and local industries turned to migrant workers, mainly from Mexico and Latin America, and also from Asia.

There are an estimated hundred thousand such workers in the Gulf region, working in the construction trades and in places such as various ports along the Gulf coast. The firms that hired these immigrants, many without legal documents, used their vulnerable status to pay them less-than-minimum wages and treat them appallingly.

One study found that “a quarter of the workers rebuilding the city were immigrants lacking papers, almost all of them Hispanic, making far less money than legal workers.”

Workers at a Halliburton job site said that their subcontractors would threaten them with deportation as a way to make them live in constant fear. Journalist Naomi Klein recounts, “Most workers fled to avoid arrest; after all, they could end up in one of the new immigration prisons that Halliburton/KBR had been contracted to build for the federal government.”

The workers at Signal were hired in India or in the Persian Gulf, many of them veterans of the guest worker networks. Just as they have begun to protest the bad work conditions in Dubai, skilled Indian workers are now standing up for their rights in the U.S. too. The striking workers carried signs that read “Dignity” and “I Am a Man”, phrases used by Black workers during the strike wave of the late 1960s.

The displaced African-American workers support these Indian workers, both groups having been carefully organised by the NOWCRJ into the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity. The linkage between the displaced black workers and the exploited Indian workers is one step away from the divides produced by the political class: from Nagin and Tancredo one gets the view that one set of workers creates problems for another. This view is rejected by the vibrant alliance knit together by the NOWCRJ.

The NOWCRJ and the 500 workers have sued Signal. The NOWCRJ’s Saket Soni said: “The U.S. State Department calls it a ‘repulsive crime’ when recruiters and employers in other parts of the world bind guest workers with crushing debts and threats of deportation. This is precisely what is happening on the Gulf coast.” Vijayan put it plainly: “We are saying that this is modern-day slavery.”

Late last year, Louisiana’s voters put an Indian-American, Bobby Jindal, into the Governor’s mansion. The workers felt that he might be sympathetic to them. The Indian community in the State felt that he would make some special statement when an Indian graduate student was killed in Louisiana State University in December 2007.

Jindal remains silent. So do the main political candidates for President, trapped by a discussion that does not seem to listen to the black displaced workers and the striking Indian workers, both of whom point their hard hats at the corporations and not at each other.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

This essay originally ran on India’s Frontline.






Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).