Mississippi Mutiny Challenges Anti-Trafficking Law

On March 6, 2008, over 100 Indian shipyard workers walked from their jobs in Pascagoula, Mississippi, located on the Gulf of Mexico. They claimed that they had been trafficked from India by Signal International, a marine construction company with ongoing projects throughout the Gulf of Mexico, and by two labor recruiting companies. The story was reported on by the South Asian Journalists Association, and has been covered extensively in the national press in India, in local media outlets in Mississippi and New Orleans, and in immigrant community-based media in the U.S. The story also garnered attention in the national U.S. media, with stories running in the New York Times, on National Public Radio, ABC, and in the international press, including stories run by the Associated Press, the BBC, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The media reported that the workers were all in the U.S. on H2B visas, also known as 'guest worker' visas, and were employed in Signal International's Pascagoula shipyard.

The March 6 SAJA story reported that "...the workers contend they've been lured into a human trafficking ring created by [Signal] in the aftermath of Katrina... They plan to report themselves to the Department of Justice as victims of trafficking, and demand federal prosecution of Signal." The walkout was executed with support from the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, directed by Saket Soni, and a host of ally organizations, including (but not limited to) the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, Jobs with Justice, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together), and the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF). The workers' campaign for justice has captured the attention of both labor and immigrant rights activists in the U.S. and in India. Their campaign bears careful consideration, both for the ways in which it marks the front lines of immigrants' rights activism in the U.S., and for the possibilities it holds for upending some of the deepest problems of the anti-trafficking framework.

The Pascagoula workers who participated in the walkout, all highly skilled men from India who had paid recruiters to bring them to work in the U.S., contend that they have been subject to human trafficking. They use the language of "modern day slavery" to describe their situation with Signal, a phrase that is often used synonymously with "prostitution" in international media reports, and even in legal and policy arenas that focus on female migration from the Global South. The workers' claims are based in their experience of being deceived by Signal, by Global Resources Inc., an international labor recruiting firm, and a Mumbai-based recruiting company called Dewan Consultants. According to Sabulal Vijayan, a former Signal employee who was fired for helping to organize fellow workers, and who has been a visible member of the ensuing campaign, "All three of these companies acted together. Signal says they didn't have a hand in this, but that's not true, they all worked together." The workers are now taking legal action against these companies at the state and federal level in the U.S., and are considering initiating litigation in India, as well.

Many of the workers who walked out had been employed in the United Arab Emirates prior to being recruited for the Mississippi shipyards. Vijayan says that, although he was already employed in the UAE, the offer to come to the U.S. came with the promise of a green card, and the option of permanent residency, something that would not have been possible in the UAE. "I thought, with the green card, I could come here and bring my family." Temporary workers in the UAE and neighboring countries are not allowed to bring their families with them; immigrant workers are ubiquitous in the region, but labor under severe immigration restrictions. Workers like Vijayan were recruited in India, where they were apparently told by the recruiters that they were being hired for permanent jobs in the U.S., and that they would be able to apply for green cards immediately. Each worker was required to pay a fee of up to $20,000 to the recruiters ("payable in three installments," explained Vijayan) for the visas and paperwork. Many of them sold all of their property, including the family jewelry, or took high interest loans to cover the fee, with the understanding that this was an investment that would garner greater returns. The workers report arriving in Pascagoula to discover a completely different situation to the one they had been promised, especially with respect to their immigration status. Rather than being eligible for green cards, they found themselves to be guest workers on H2B visas, legally prevented from applying for permanent residency in the U.S. In addition, they report that they were made to live 'like pigs in a cage,' 24 men to a room, in a compound encircled by fences and barbed wire. An exorbitant $1050 was withheld from each worker's monthly paycheck in rent for these barracks, which no worker had the option of refusing.

H2B visas typically expire after 10 months, and can only be renewed for up to two additional years. Renewal is negotiated between the employer and the Department of Homeland Security, and not with the worker. The workers' H2B visa status meant that their right to work in the U.S. was contingent on their working for Signal. The guest worker program builds in a significant degree of dependency for legal immigration status on the employer, due to the necessity of sponsorship by that employer, combined with the extremely short-term nature of the visa. According to J.J. Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center involved in the case, "Modern day slavery doesn't always involve physical violence or holding guestworkers' passports-- human traffickers have other means of control. The imbalance of power between employers and guestworkers, whose U.S. employment is tied to one employer, leaves workers incredibly vulnerable...exploitative employers and recruiters also use fraudulent recruiting, exorbitant debt, hostile law enforcement, isolated and restricted labor camps, threats against workers' families, and direct retaliation against workers who speak out...Structural reform of the guestworker program is critical."

In addition to being deceived about their working and living conditions, the Pascagoula workers report suffering intimidation from their employer if they tried to leave their jobs, saying they were threatened with being reported to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or the local police if they complained in any way.

"This is part of a pattern," says Jacob Horwitz, an organizer with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. In an interview, Horwitz spoke of jobs throughout the Gulf Coast that were outsourced to foreign guest workers after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Employers in the construction and hospitality industries, for example, capitalized on the displacement of poor communities by these storms to replace many of their local workers with foreign workers who could be paid as much as half of what local workers had been paid. These foreign workers would have less power to negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions than the people they were unwittingly replacing. "They want a work force that's disposable and easily exploitable," he explains.

Because the main alleged harm to the workers includes being

deceived about their working conditions and working under coercive conditions, the workers are able to frame their legal claims as a set of violations under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), passed into U.S. law in the year 2000. "The language [of trafficking] comes directly from the workers," says Horwitz, describing the wider campaign for immigrants' rights in the Gulf region. "In scores of meetings, different groups of H2B workers who either had their passports confiscated, were sold from one company to another or had been kidnapped by their employers with the help of local law enforcement have described their experiences to U.S. as slavery." Deepa Iyer, the executive director of SAALT, concurs. "This is framed as "modern day slavery" because there was forced or fraudulent migration, and exploitation by an employer."†

This use of the TVPA in the Pascagoula campaign poses a whole series of challenges, not only to the employer and recruiters in the case, but also to the ideological framework that led to the initial passage of the TVPA and to how the legal anti-trafficking framework been understood since then. The TVPA's passage was the result of many years of wrangling between feminists about prostitution, a struggle which has its own antecedents in feminist debates on pornography. The history of opposing "white slavery," a late nineteenth century euphemism for white women and girls in forced prostitution, also provides an important historical context for understanding the contemporary priorities imbedded in this law. An important contemporary context for the passage of the TVPA was the infamous "Reddy case" in San Francisco in the late 1990s, in which Lakireddy Bali Reddy, a wealthy Indian businessman, was eventually convicted of trafficking girls from his village in Andhra Pradesh. The Reddy case involved local and national law enforcement in the U.S. and in India, and required literally dozens of governmental agencies to coordinate legal strategies and efforts to find and compensate the victims. Given the ongoing discussions on the need for an omnibus anti-trafficking law in the U.S. at the time, as well as growing anxieties about the perceived increase in undocumented migrants crossing American borders, the Reddy case provided an almost perfect additional rationale for the new law.

When it was passed, the TVPA was lauded for a number of reasons, including the creation of a new visa category that provided access to permanent residence in the U.S.—the T Visa. The fact that an extremely low number of T visas that were actually given became a point of criticism, along with the requirement that, by and large, adults who claimed to have been trafficked had to cooperate with law enforcement to be classified as legitimate victims of trafficking, even if this meant putting themselves or their families back home in greater danger. (Minors are not subject to this requirement.) The greatest point of criticism revolved around the fact that the TVPA had ideological roots in anti-prostitution rhetoric, and that it therefore drew an implicit connection between prostitution and trafficking. Critics pointed out that was problematic because everyone doing sex work is not trafficked, and because, although the TVPA recognizes a wide range of human trafficking, the rhetorical focus on prostitution would potentially leave out people who were trafficked into other industries. In a recent article, feminist scholar Wendy Chapkis articulated a further criticism of the TVPA.†

In the case of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, language within and surrounding the legislation neatly divides "violated innocents" from "illegal immigrants" along the lines of sex and gender. Trafficking victims, described as vulnerable women and children forced from the safety of their home or homelands into gross sexual exploitation, are distinguished from economic migrants who are understood to be men who have willfully violated national borders for individual gain.

The walkout in Pascagoula addresses Chapkis' concern about the distinction between "violated female innocents" and "illegal male migrants." It is also worth noting because it challenges the historical conflation between trafficking and prostitution, and is part of a growing trend of exploited immigrant workers in the U.S. using the language of trafficking to describe what is wrong with their situation. This particular campaign also challenges another fundamental assumption imbedded in the anti-trafficking framework, by naming Signal International and the two recruiting agencies as the primary culprits. The policy and legal discourses on trafficking have tended to highlight evil individual criminals, or "networks organized crime," as the main perpetrators of human trafficking. (That a major anti-trafficking initiative in India is being coordinated by the United National Office on Drugs and Crime is a case in point.) Instead, this case highlights the role of corporations working transnationally to maximize their profits by exacerbating economic vulnerability and legal dependency among potential workers.

The workers' walkout has evolved into an organized campaign for justice, and has included a march from New Orleans to Washington DC by members of the campaign, which resulted in workers speaking with members of Congress about their struggle. The workers have taken on a set of legal challenges which stretch between the U.S. and India. While they aim to have their legal case heard, it is clear that Signal is also waging its own campaign, having hired a lawyer that did public relations work in the Clinton administration. As it happens, Signal is a subcontractor of Northrup Grumman, which places it close to the center of power in the military industrial complex. This may or may not have had anything to do with the Indian consulate's delayed condemnation of the workers' situation in Mississippi. According to Sabulal Vijayan, and numerous press reports, the Indian consulate's response has been lukewarm, at best. Tracking this case as it develops will mean taking note of how the U.S. and Indian governments respond to this case. It will also mean paying attention to how the politics of the term "trafficking" play out in the movement for immigrants' rights, and the struggle for immigration reform.

† Paragraph edited on 16 May 2008

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