Home > Uncategorized > The untold story of the exploitation of immigrant labor – posted 4/30/2023

The untold story of the exploitation of immigrant labor – posted 4/30/2023

Few subjects are written about more poorly than immigration. Fox News and the MAGA fascists have long controlled the immigration narrative and they talk about immigrants as two dimensional villains, not as fully developed human beings. They have endlessly touted the building of Trump’s wall while promoting xenophobia.

Besides the abject racism behind this perspective, a big problem with this narrative is what it leaves out. That struck me when I recently read Saket Soni’s book The Great Escape A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America. America has long relied on foreign-born workers. Soni’s book tells the story of hundreds of Indian workers brought to the U.S. on false promises who are then subjected to horrendous work and living conditions.

This happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006 when the massive storm damage left 600,000 homes and many businesses that needed repair. As Soni has remarked, it turned the entire Gulf Coast into a construction site. Soni’s book shows how much the rebuilding depended on low wage African-American and immigrant workers. You never hear the MAGA fascists acknowledge this work or express appreciation for this essential labor.

The story begins when Soni, a labor organizer then at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, received a mysterious anonymous midnight phone call from a Mississippi area code. Being Indian, Soni immediately recognized the caller was also of Indian background.

What Soni ultimately discovers could not be more surprising. Signal International, a marine repair company, and a network of labor recruiters and an immigration lawyer lured workers from India to repair large oil rigs after Hurricane Katrina. The Indian workers, who were highly skilled welders and pipefitters, were promised green cards and good-paying jobs.

As part of the package, they had to pay $20,000 each to get into America. They were told they would be able to bring their wives and families nine months later. But none of this was true. There were no green cards, only temporary guest worker visas where they had no right to switch employers.

Hundreds of men handed over their family’s life savings. Some sold their Indian ancestral lands. Others paid by taking out high interest loans from loan sharks. Coming up with $20,000 was an enormous investment for these men. They were instructed to lie and tell no one about the $20,000 payments.

When the men arrived in Pascagoula Mississippi, what they found was entirely different from what they had expected. Signal International had built a labor camp (they called it a man camp) surrounded by a barbed wire fence on company property. The company placed trailers over a toxic waste dump and stuffed 24 men into each trailer.

The men were required to work 12 hour shifts in every 24 hour rotation. The company fed them an atrocious diet of stale bread and frozen rice. They were only allowed out of the camp chaperoned by security guards. Before they arrived, the men thought they would be housed in nice apartments but the company charged them $1000 a month to cover the cost of the overcrowded trailer housing.

The company saw their whole scheme as a way to get skilled workers at a fraction of the cost. They believed they could undercut wages and working conditions.

Without giving Soni’s beautifully told story away, I will tell that through highly creative organizing he was successful in essentially staging a worker jail break. The workers filed a civil lawsuit and a criminal complaint with the Department of Justice alleging human trafficking. The story includes many ups and down with a cast of fascinating characters. ICE played a despicable background role working in collaboration with Signal to flip the trafficking investigation into an investigation of the workers’ immigration status.

Many years later in 2015, a federal jury trial finally opened in David et al v Signal International LLC in New Orleans. There were 11 separate lawsuits against Signal, the recruiters and the lawyer involved in the scheme.

Ultimately the jury found against the defendants on multiple claims including trafficking for forced labor. The jury awarded plaintiffs $14.1 million in damages. Signal settled the remaining 10 lawsuits for $20 million and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They also settled an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) racial discrimination case against the Indian workers for $5 million.

Before I read Soni’s book, I had never heard this story which is probably not surprising. There used to be labor reporters who covered worker issues. That is like ancient history now. Immigrant workers stories are even rarer. This is a side to the immigration story that remains largely untold.

Guest worker programs remain in the shadows allowing more immigrant workers to be subject to exploitation by bosses. The Signal story is a case study. Shady recruitment practices, wage and hour abuses, dangerous work conditions, inadequate medical care and racial discrimination are all part of the story.

When Hurricane Katrina happened, it was supposed to be a once-in-a-hundred-year event but we now know it was only the first of many more intense and destructive superstorms. Just off the top, I could think of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey in 2012, Harvey in Houston in 2017 and Ian in Florida in 2022. Climate change will have an ongoing and expensive infrastructure price tag.

Soni points out that his labor organization, now called Resilience Workforce, follows the workers who follow the storms. It is an easy scientifically-based prediction that the upcoming superstorms will require very expensive clean-up and rebuilding running into the billions of dollars. Soni’s dream is that immigrant and other low wage workers will be permanently accepted, will be well-treated, compensated fairly and recognized as providing he necessary labor they do.

The immigration debate has been broken and stalled for years now. That is true with the guest workers programs too. Sooner or later and hopefully sooner, we will have comprehensive immigration reform and clearly established paths to citizenship.

The immigrant threat narrative hurts the entire working class. It is in the common interest of all working people to reject racism and xenophobia. Only a unified labor movement can pressure employers toward better wages and working conditions for all.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. bebo6004
    April 30, 2023 at 8:57 pm

    Nothing short of modern slavery! The awarded damages

    • April 30, 2023 at 9:09 pm

      I would certainly agree, Bebo. Retooled slavery and until Soni got involved people looked the other way.

  2. Ronni Wise
    April 30, 2023 at 9:36 pm

    Thank you for sharing this, Jon. I had absolutely th

    • April 30, 2023 at 9:39 pm

      The book is great, Ronni. One of the best books about organizing I have ever read. He is an exceptional writer.

  3. jlewandohotmailcom
    May 1, 2023 at 6:40 pm

    There must be some flaw in the human mind that makes it susceptible to the idea that it’s OK to exploit other humans. It’s so easy to convince people that those with the least power and resources are the villains, too. I like the idea of telling the stories of immigrants who do a much better job of promoting the American dream than the anarcho-capitalists who exploit them.

    • May 1, 2023 at 9:10 pm

      We do seem to be moving backwards. Immigrants have been blips at the border, not real people. It is Dickensian. Consider what is happening with child labor. I think it is important to tell immigrant stories. You are right.

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