In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of guest workers with H-2B visas were recruited from Latin America and Asia and brought to the Gulf Coast on the false promise of steady jobs, fair pay, great conditions and even permanent legal status. Many of the workers paid thousands of dollars each to recruiters to buy what they thought was an American dream, only to find out later their dream was a nightmare filled with terrible work conditions and no protections.
The workers fought back, and today have rung up some significant achievements. They now plan to build on their victories by focusing on organizing and political action to expand the rights of guest workers. The H-2B workers are recruited for jobs after employers certify that they cannot find U.S. citizens to do the work. The guest workers are then bound to that one employer and cannot move to another job if they are mistreated.
First they formed their own organization, the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, which serves as a national voice for guest workers whose rights are denied. In one of their most widely publicized actions, members of the Alliance sued Signal International, a Gulf Coast shipyard, claiming that Indian guest workers at the shipyard were practically enslaved. The workers endured a hunger strike and traveled to Washington, D.C., to demand justice. The workers, all men, said they were charged up to $20,000 each for false promises of green cards, only to work and live in deplorable conditions
In June, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, announced that 150 of the Indian workers had been subjected to involuntary servitude and were entitled to visas set aside for victims of human trafficking.
The Alliance, a partner of the New Orleans Center for Racial Justice, also was instrumental in the introduction of the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act this past spring. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Mendendez (D-N.J.), would protect immigrant workers who speak up about conditions on the job. Often, immigrant workers are threatened with deportation if they speak up. Congress has not acted on the bill.
The workers also won and lost a case against Decatur Hotel in New Orleans. A federal district judge agreed the hotel had broken federal labor laws and had not paid guest worker employees a fair wage. But a federal appeals court overruled that decision.