Noted human rights activist Hollis Watkins on Wednesday expressed his solidarity with Indian shipyard workers stranded in New Orleans and who have launched a protest campaign. The workers shared stories, songs, and messages of unity with him.
Hollis Watkins is widely known and respected in the US civil rights circles for his work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1950s and 1960s.
"It is so important for us to come together and share our different struggles directly with one another," he told the workers, who were serving in near slavery conditions with a marine construction company - Signal International - until earlier this month. "If we do that, we realise that we're two legs on the same body, facing the same puddle of earth."
"The non-violent philosophy we used in our work was picked up from studying Mahatma Gandhi," Watkins said, before teaching the workers a song he and other US freedom fighters used to sing during their struggle: "Ain't Scared of Nobody Because I Want My Freedom."
In return, the workers taught Watkins a song in Malayalam, their native language. Most of them hail from the southern Indian state of Kerala.
They also discussed how immigrants and African-Americans were taught to hate and fear each other in order to stop them from understanding their common fight against racism and exploitation and uniting in a common struggle.
The workers have started a protest march to Washington DC to highlight the Indian government's failure to protect its own citizens. They have already filed a major anti-human trafficking lawsuit against Signal International and its Indian recruiters.
Former Signal worker Sabulal Vijayan said, "I am very proud of these workers for chucking their jobs and coming out to tell the world the truth - the same experience black people in the US had gone through as slaves is going on in a modern form with the so-called guest worker programme."
The workers held a press conference on the steps of the Mississippi state capitol on the morning of March 19.
On March 26, they will arrive in Washington DC and demand a meeting with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen, who has repeatedly refused to see them and hear their grievances.
Meanwhile, in New Delhi, families of the affected workers called on Union Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahamed on Thursday.
"I received a petition from them and will discuss the matter. We will see what best we can do. If any Indian in the world is in difficulty, we will do our best to help them out within the legal framework," the Minister told Hindustan Times.