Aby Raju: Macon, GA

Leader of 250 Indian guest workers who escaped captivity and won redress from Congress and recognition from labor unions

In 2006, a Mississippi-based company called Signal International hired 500 skilled metalworkers from India, under the H-2B temporary guest worker program, to repair oilrigs after Hurricane Katrina. Aby Raju was one of those workers, who say they were promised green cards for themselves and their families. Some workers paid intermediaries as much as $20,000 to make the trip to Mississippi, often taking on crushing debt or selling their homes.

Upon their arrival, the workers learned they had no hope of obtaining green cards. They could not work for anyone else and were told they would be fired and deported if they left their isolated labor camps. In the words of The New York Times, which later extensively covered their case, “They were trapped as surely as if they were shackled.”

In January 2007, Raju and his fellow workers started organizing, often under cover of night.  Signal retaliated, sending armed guards to enable targeted deportations.  One year later, after clandestine organizing, Raju and 250 other workers took a leap of faith and escaped from Signal’s labor camps.  Five days later, Raju and others travelled on foot from New Orleans to Washington, DC in the spirit of Gandhi.  They marched through the South, building relationships with African American community members along the way.

In Washington, the workers launched a 29-day hunger strike to demand redress.  Raju became one of the first H-2B (temporary work permits) guest workers to testify in Congress.  Over the next two years, he and other members of the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity carried out a major education campaign to show Americans the realities behind the guestworker program, including how the Immigration and

Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency had colluded with Signal, advising private deportations and helping the company hold workers in labor camps.

As a result, the workers achieved a major victory: the Obama Administration granted them legalization and family reunification.

Raju and his coworkers faced and overcame extraordinary risks in their four-year journey to freedom: armed labor camps, the constant threat of deportation, financial desperation, and pressure even from loved ones as they staged marches and hunger strikes.

Raju’s courage inspired workers, civil rights leaders, labor movement leaders, members of Congress, and the media into awareness and action.  From 2008 to 2011, the heroic actions of Raju and his co-workers spurred hundreds of solidarity actions from the labor movement and the civil rights community. Most recently, in large part spurred by the events surrounding Raju’s efforts, the AFL-CIO announced it would sign a national partnership agreement with the Alliance of Guestworkers.

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The Freedom From Fear Awards are produced by Public Interest Projects, (PIP).  PIP is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that brings together and strengthens the work of philanthropic institutions, donors, nonprofit groups and other public interest organizations sharing a vision of a society that ensures justice, dignity and opportunity for all people.   Statements and activities of Freedom from Fear Award winners do not necessarily reflect the views of PIP.

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