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Saket Soni is a brilliant labor organizer. He’s also a talented storyteller. His first book, The Great Escape, A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America, tells the gripping, can’t-put-it-down tale of one of the largest human trafficking schemes in modern US history and how 500 Indian-born workers brought their corporate exploiters to account.
It’s the kind of bottom up, David vs. Goliath victory story we need to hear more often. Lured to America on the promise of good pay and green cards, the men Soni write about mortgaged their homes and their families’ futures to pay for a chance at the American dream, only to find, when they arrived, as Soni puts it, “not the dream but an American nightmare.”
Crammed into filthy man camps on toxic land, working dangerous jobs on hurricane-damaged oil rigs off the Gulf Coast, the workers finally revolt. With help from Soni and his colleagues at The New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, they devise a bold plan, and escape, thanks to a whole lot of cheap cigars, some paid-off, disgruntled guards, and a faked, big, Indian wedding. After marching 1500 miles to DC, in the style of Mahatma Gandhi and a 29-day hunger strike, the workers finally force the federal government to act.
A DOJ investigation of their employer, Signal International ensues, and dozens of lawsuits in which juries require Signal to pay out — $14 million in damages to one group of plaintiffs and $20 million to another.
Today, Soni’s the founder and director of Resilience Force, a project that comes directly out of his experience working with the men in this book. With the U.S. experiencing a labor shortage, and climate catastrophe increasing the need for disaster workers, he and his team seek to build the recovery workforce we need with the rights and equity those workers deserve.
What we urgently require, says Soni, are systems of repair and rebuilding— not just of our immigration system and our buildings — but systems of repair and rebuilding relationships; systems that band people together to solve shared problems.
So where do things stand? At the end of 2022, after a spike in scaffolding deaths, New York’s Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation establishing Carlos’s law, increasing the criminal corporate liability for a worker’s death or injury on the job. The State of Colorado is launching the nation’s first unemployment program for undocumented migrants as we speak. And the President’s backward position on asylum seekers notwithstanding, just as The Great Escape was being published, the Biden administration finally announced new protections from deportation for workers alleging abuse.
Perhaps that’s the coda to Saket Soni’s book. David vs. Goliath stories are great but it’s even better when the Davids get some help.
You can watch my conversation with Saket Soni and see some of the workers in his book, at lauraflanders.org, or catch the show on any one of hundreds of PBS TV stations across the country. Find out where, and how to subscribe to the podcast, at our website, that’s lauraflanders.org.