Sold an American Dream, these workers from India wound up living a nightmare
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, hundreds of welders and pipefitters were recruited from India to come to the Gulf Coast to repair oil rigs. But when they arrived in the U.S., it was nothing like what they were promised.
Other segments from the episode on January 23, 2023
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. As climate change generates more catastrophic weather events, helping communities rebuild after floods, tornadoes and hurricanes has become a big business. There are firms that specialize in the work and thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, who move from one disaster to the next, getting temporary employment and sometimes being exploited by unscrupulous contractors. Our guest today, Saket Soni, tells the story of hundreds of welders and pipefitters who were recruited from India to come to the Gulf Coast to repair oil rigs after Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and found themselves trapped in a nightmare. After paying a small fortune, expecting they'd get good wages and a green card to bring their families to America, they found themselves living in a squalid work camp surrounded by barbed wire.
Soni is a labor organizer who works among migrant workers. And after meeting many of the men, he planned a daring move, to convince the workers to escape their camp and get the Justice Department to charge their employer with human trafficking. The campaign would include a march on Washington, meetings with lawyers and members of Congress and plenty of hardship and heartbreak before the workers got their day in court. Saket Soni is founder and director of Resilience Force, a nonprofit that advocates for workers who rebuild communities after weather disasters. His new book is "The Great Escape: A True Story Of Forced Labor And Immigrant Dreams in America." Saket Soni, welcome to FRESH AIR.
SAKET SONI: Thank you so much, Dave.
DAVIES: It's fascinating because this is a story that you were a participant in. But it's clear that you went and did a lot of research, particularly on the backgrounds of a lot of these workers in India. And so I want to talk about that. But let's just begin by having you tell us a bit about your own background and what kind of work you do.
SONI: Sure. Well, the story actually starts when I came to the U.S. from India. I'm from Delhi. And I came to study at the University of Chicago. I think my parents may have been the only ones in the history of Indian civilization to let their son come to the U.S. to study theater. That's what I was doing when I missed an immigration deadline and found myself out of status. I didn't think it was very serious at the time. I thought of it as no more grave than an overdue library book. And it might not have been, until 9/11 happened. And overnight, like many immigrants, I lost my foothold in normal American life.
That was the experience that turned me from theater to community organizing. My real education as an organizer was when I went down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And what I saw was that the flooding had turned the Gulf Coast into the world's largest construction site. Black and brown reconstruction workers gathered to seek work in the shadow of a 60-foot-tall statue of Robert E. Lee. And I founded a small, scrappy labor rights organization that did what it could to support them. That's when I got the mysterious midnight phone call that put me on the trail of one of the largest cases of forced labor in modern U.S. history.
DAVIES: All right. So this begins for these workers when they're back in India, and they are presented with this great opportunity to get to America and get good jobs. A lot of these were men who had had some experience as migrant laborers. Where had they been? What kind of work had they done?
SONI: That's right. Many of them had been career migrant workers. They'd left India again and again on stints to build oil refineries and other things across the Middle East. The call I actually got was from one of these pipefitters. He was an anonymous Indian man who was too scared to give his name. I get dozens of calls a day from workers who need help, usually Latinos, sometimes local workers. But this was the first Indian man. And I thought, what was an Indian worker doing in the Mississippi Gulf Coast? What I discovered was that he was one of 500 Indian laborers who had been lured to the U.S. on promises of good work and green cards.
DAVIES: Right. So you profile several of these men. What were they told about what they had to do, what they would be doing and what was required of them?
SONI: They were convinced to pay $20,000 apiece to come rebuild storm-damaged oil rigs in the U.S. Gulf Coast. Now, $20,000 is several generations' worth of savings in India. These men sold ancestral land, put homes on the hock, took enormous debt to take the opportunity and to take this offer of green cards and good work. But when they arrived, it wasn't on green cards. They were on temporary visas that bound them to a single employer. They lived in a barbed wire camp on company property. They worked round-the-clock shifts rebuilding oil rigs. And the green cards were nowhere in sight. They were sold an American dream but dropped into an American nightmare.
DAVIES: All right. So for $20,000, which - I mean, and people hocked their wedding jewelry and took out loans and mortgages on their homes, took family savings. For $20,000, they would get not just a job, but the promise of a green card, which would allow them to bring their families to the United States. They were told, as part of the immigration process, that they would have to visit, I believe, the American embassy in India. And they were told they're going to have to lie about something. Explain this part of it.
SONI: That's right. So at the center of this scheme was a liberal New Orleans lawyer who coached the men on what they would have to say at the American embassy and the American consulates across India. This lawyer is a fascinating character. He always thought of himself as the immigrant's best friend. But through a really interesting series of events, he wound up teaming up with a Mississippi cop, who turned into a labor broker, and an Indian labor broker. And together, they flew out to India and orchestrated the scheme to provide cheap workers to this oil rig builder.
So this attorney got these men to go to the American embassy and consulates. And as part of the visa application, a consular official would ask them, did you pay any money for this visa? Did you pay anyone any money to go to the United States? The workers were told to say no. They were coached to say they didn't. And then they were allowed to come but on temporary visas.
DAVIES: Right. And while they thought they were going to be getting green cards, what they were actually getting were these - now, if I have this right, the H-2B visa. It's for workers going to an employer who has a temporary work shortage, right? And that was this company that was - Signal International, that was rebuilding the oil rigs, right?
SONI: That's right. That's right. And this trio, the immigration attorney, the Mississippi cop-turned-labor broker and the Indian labor recruiter, they collected huge recruitment fees from the workers. And the company got hundreds of skilled workers for a fraction of the cost of the U.S. workers. But the workers themselves wound up being trapped. Instead of green cards, they came on, like you said, H-2B visas that allow them in the U.S. to work legally for only a few months at a time. During that time, they were bound to one employer, to this oil rig builder. And they were trapped in a way that a federal jury would come to recognize as modern-day forced labor.
DAVIES: Now, they were flown from India to the United States and ended up in a little place in Mississippi. Pascagoula, right?
SONI: Pascagoula, Miss.
DAVIES: And they thought they were going to have apartments. What were their living conditions actually like?
SONI: Oh, conditions were atrocious. There were no apartments. There were no decent living quarters. The men lived 24 to a single trailer in a company man camp. That was actually what the company called it. And this man camp was built above a toxic waste dump. The men were fed frozen rice and moldy bread. But some of the biggest indignities, Dave, were the things I only understood when I got to know the workers. So, for example, there's this worker right at the center of the book named Aby Raju (ph). He was 20 feet up on a platform doing a dangerous welding job when he got a phone call from his pregnant wife in India 10,000 miles away as she was going into surgery. Not only could he not be with her, but he wouldn't even get to see the son that was born that day in person for years.
Then there was another worker named Gani Gurvinder Singh (ph). He's a Sikh man. And for him, the greatest indignity wasn't the food. It wasn't the squalid labor camp surrounded by barbed wire. It was being forced to violate a religious oath and shave his beard because he didn't have the English skills or access to the basic rights to explain why, in his faith, it was a sin. These were some of the kinds of indignities the workers faced.
DAVIES: And just to be clear, they were in this work camp. You mentioned barbed wire. Were they not permitted to come and go as they chose?
SONI: They could come in and out of the labor camp. Usually they were taken on chaperone visits where they were surveilled by a company official, put in a company van, taken to Walmart to buy, you know, groceries and other things and come back to the camp. They were heavily surveilled. And while they were theoretically allowed in and out, they could never do it without a company official with them. The more important thing was their fear of deportation kept them in the camp. For some amount of time, you know, they were in the camp legally and on these legal visas. But after a certain time, their visas lapsed. But the company kept using them on these 24-hour shifts that they would rotate on, the day shift and the night shift. And they couldn't leave the labor camp because of their own fear that they would be picked up and deported if anyone discovered that they were now undocumented.
DAVIES: Right. The company basically had to tell immigration authorities, we have a temporary worker shortage. Give us these visas for 10 months. When they expired, the company had plenty of work to do. So they just kept working. And the workers really had no choice but to stay with it and continue to ask for their green cards, which never appeared.
SONI: That's right.
DAVIES: Were the workers charged rent for the - for staying in the camp?
SONI: The workers were charged rent. In fact, a company official, the senior vice president who had the idea to build the labor camps, thought that workers would be only too happy to get up, roll out of bed and be able to walk to work. This is a man who had never been to India, but somehow he thought that compared to conditions in India, these workers would be happy campers. That's the way he put it. The company ended up charging the workers enormous amounts of money deducted from their paychecks to pay for the millions of dollars it took to construct the labor camps.
DAVIES: A thousand a month. Was that what it was?
SONI: A thousand dollars a month. Yeah.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Saket Soni. He's a labor organizer, and his new book is "The Great Escape: A True Story Of Forced Labor And Immigrant Dreams In America." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Saket Soni. He's a labor organizer, and he has a new book about some Indian welders and pipefitters who were brought to the United States in 2006 to repair oil rigs after Hurricane Katrina and found themselves in a very bad spot. The name of his book is "The Great Escape: A True Story Of Forced Labor And Immigrant Dreams In America."
So these welders and pipefitters who'd come from India at enormous expense were pretty unhappy with their living conditions. And as you write this, the company was just learning that the lawyer and labor brokers who had brought them had charged them a lot more money than the company realized. So there was some tension growing. And at some point, you get involved. You get a call from someone. Tell us about that. Tell us what you heard from them, how you got involved.
SONI: Well, I got this anonymous call from this Indian man. I walked into a church where he said he and other workers would meet with me. I expected to meet with three workers. I opened the door, and there ended up being 100 workers in this church, sitting there, having a secret meeting with me. And as I spoke to them over the next few weeks, a man by the name of Rajan (ph) came forward. And this is a man who I ended up partnering with to build the campaign. Rajan was the kind of partner a labor leader dreams of. He taught me the inner workings of the camp, the pressures on the men, the reasons they felt trapped, the nature of their debts. And he taught me how to cook.
And over the course of many months and many meals, we orchestrated an escape out of a heist movie. Without giving away all the details, it involved a lot of Wild Turkey whiskey, a lot of awful flavored cigars and a fictitious Indian wedding that let us ferry 500 men into a local hotel five men at a time over the Pascagoula River right under the noses of the guards. And that then culminated in the great escape that is the title of the book. What we didn't know then, though, Dave, was that this was only the beginning of a three-year journey that was half-freedom march, half-conspiracy thriller.
DAVIES: What did you learn to cook from Rajan?
SONI: Oh, Rajan was an extraordinary cook. And, in fact, to win over the men and convince the men in the labor camp to hear me out and consider the plan to escape, he had me bring him Indian spices, smuggled them into the labor camp, took over the kitchen in the labor camp and cook the simplest of Indian meals - dal with mustard, you know, rice with curry leaves. But it brought these men back to life. Through a series of meals, he brought them back to life and then ferried them out to meet with me. I owe my ability to cook any Indian food, I owe it to two people, Roger and my mother. He cooked maybe the best okra I've ever had in my life. That was the first thing he taught me how to cook.
DAVIES: All right, so one case where Indian cuisine was an organizing tool.
SONI: That's right.
DAVIES: So these were men without a lot of leverage in any traditional sense. They didn't have any legal status in the country. You were an organizer. You knew how to get press attention and, you know, build allies. So you managed to get them out of the camp, which was quite a feat, and kind of come together in New Orleans with this code language of having a wedding so that you wouldn't be detected. But once you got him out, what was the plan then? I mean, how could they advance their cause other than by getting some attention?
SONI: Well, the plan was something that Rajan and I developed, with a lot of help, while the workers were still trapped in the company's labor camps. You know, Rajan is someone who was used to striking for leverage. He had led strikes in other countries as a migrant worker. But you only strike for things that a company can give you. And I explained to Rajan that Signal couldn't legally give anyone green cards. The whole thing had been a lie. Only the U.S. government can do that. There's no circumstance in which Signal could provide these green cards.
So the thought was not to strike on company property, but to escape the labor camp and report the company and its recruiters to the Department of Justice. They'd offer evidence that this was an international conspiracy spanning from Mumbai to Mississippi. And they present themselves not just as victims, but as witnesses to human trafficking. That's exactly what happened. We escaped from the labor camp and filed the complaint and launched a public campaign to convince the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation into human trafficking.
DAVIES: I want to just come back for a moment to the day that this escape actually occurred, because the company employees, I mean, they'd known that there were some complaints. And they were actually going to deport one of the workers earlier. And there was some resistance there. But they really had no idea this was happening, right? So when it happened, was there a rally outside the plant gate or outside of the work camp? And were press in attendance? Describe the scene for us.
SONI: Well, the night before the great escape, the guards were in their usual place, confident that the next day would be like every other day. Company officials were sleeping tight, unaware that anything was afoot. But workers were slowly streaming out of the labor camp. They were doing it quietly. Rajan was ferrying people out as usual in small groups. Other team leaders were ferrying people out. Guards really believed it was just one more night, that in exchange for flavored cigars and small, little bottles of bourbon, they'd let workers go out and have their night on town. Meanwhile, there was a hotel owner who believed that he was hosting a large wedding, that we'd rented out the hotel, you know, to carry out a large Indian wedding. In fact, we were cramming the ballroom of this Pascagoula Hotel for a mass meeting, the biggest mass meeting yet. It was a feat of stealth, is what I call it in the book. And, in fact, the Gujarati hotel owner poked his head in expecting a wedding party and noticed there was no cake, no drinks, no women, no children, no festive outfits, no music, no alcohol. And we hustled to explain that it was actually an international wedding. The real wedding - Rajan's sister was getting married in Delhi. And this was a remote viewing of the wedding video. The hotel owner was convinced and left. And then, you know, I looked out into the sea of faces, these people with perfectly clipped mustaches, and explained the plan. The men would march back to the company gates, having escaped. And that's exactly what we did. We got to the company gates, hundreds of workers. The workers were chanting. The press was there. And the men, in an extraordinary moment, took their hardhats and threw them up in the air, over the gates of the company, in a symbolic show that they no longer wanted to work for this oil rig welder. We then got word that police was on its way and clambered into buses and drove to New Orleans, where we hid out in a New Orleans hotel.
DAVIES: I'm going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with labor organizer Saket Soni. His new book is "The Great Escape: A True Story Of Forced Labor And Immigrant Dreams In America." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest is Saket Soni, a labor organizer who focuses on workers who rebuild communities after weather disasters. He has a new book about hundreds of welders and pipefitters who were recruited to come from India to the American Gulf Coast in 2006 to repair oil rigs after Hurricane Katrina. They found themselves trapped in work camps with terrible living conditions and no prospect of the green cards they were promised in return for exorbitant fees they were charged by labor brokers who had brought them. Soni's new book about the human trafficking case that arose from that experience is "The Great Escape: A True Story Of Forced Labor And Immigrant Dreams In America."
So you pulled off this remarkable feat of getting hundreds of workers to come out of this work camp and planned to get the Justice Department to investigate their complaint that the company had engaged in human trafficking by bringing them to the United States under false pretenses and holding them essentially against their will. And the thing that happens here is you made the complaint to the Justice Department and you hope that the FBI is going to start interviewing the workers to build the case. That didn't seem to happen right away. And one of the things you decided to do was let's do a march on Washington. A large representative group set off on foot to, you know, go to Washington and dramatize the plight here. And you had allies, you know, civil rights groups and lawyers, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others. But you write that, at some point, it became apparent you were under surveillance. From whom? What was happening here?
SONI: Right. So hearing no word from the Department of Justice, we decided to march from New Orleans to D.C. to confront them directly. There were beautiful scenes of these men marching along highways through Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia. They were holding signs that said dignity and I am a man. And they were sometimes jeered or pelted by bottles from passing cars, but that only spurred their faith. They really believed that as soon as they got to D.C., they'd be vindicated by what they called the Department for Justice. What could go wrong? It was right in the name - the Department for Justice. So they expected to get that when they got to D.C. What we didn't know was that we were up against an enemy inside the federal government with corrupt ties to the company who was working to cast the men as the criminals. It was a federal agent at ICE who had very personal reasons to try to cover up the scheme and jail or deport the workers.
DAVIES: And just - ICE - we're talking about Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which does a lot of enforcement actions against immigrants. Yeah.
SONI: That's right.
DAVIES: I have to get you to relate one of these cases where you were - I think at that point, you maybe had gotten in some buses and you got to - you checked into a motel in Falls Church, Va., and there was this strange occurrence. Tell us about this.
SONI: Yeah, absolutely. So we were under surveillance all the way from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. And the way this first came to light was we were trickling out of a civil rights museum in Montgomery, Ala., and workers noticed a strange man recording them from a rooftop. I chased the man down, followed him all the way to a parked van, flung the doors open and confronted him, and he turned out to be the Alabama ICE director. And he told us that we'd continue to be surveilled all the way until we got to D.C. Later on, we were just about to enter D.C. in Falls Church, Va. And I was going from hotel room to hotel room in the Falls Church hotel rehearsing their Department of Justice interviews with them when the fire alarm rang. And we all came downstairs. We were in a low grassy knoll and looked up, and the fire department was there. State troopers were there. Multiple members of law enforcement were there, all taking our pictures.
DAVIES: Firefighters were taking your pictures.
SONI: Yeah, that's right. Firefighters were taking pictures and video. State troopers pulled up to take pictures and video and local police. And when I asked them what they were doing there, they insist they were there to fight a fire, but there was no fire for miles around, and they were already there when the fire alarm went off. Clearly, somebody wanted us outside and on display. It was a message from law enforcement, you know, to say, turn back, don't go to D.C. We went anyway and had the fight we needed to have with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. But that was a scary day.
DAVIES: Right. So the strategy here is to get the Department of Justice to investigate what you say is a legitimate complaint that the company had been engaged in human trafficking. For some reason, you know, the Justice Department and the FBI were not interviewing your people as witnesses. And you come to conclude that ICE is in some way getting in the way. And you said a moment ago that there was someone in ICE who had corrupt ties to the company. Now, this is a strong charge. In fact, you learned some very specific information about ways that ICE had cooperated with the company. You want to just explain that and how you learned it?
SONI: Yeah, absolutely. So this immigration agent, Dave, is a fascinating character. He was a born hunter. He was descended from slave catchers. He was still in middle school when he helped break up a whiskey bootlegging operation. He was an ICE agent in Mississippi when Katrina hit. It destroyed his house, left him reeling. But when the Indian workers case landed in his lap, it got all his juices flowing again. He became the ICE agent who colluded with the company to keep the workers inside the labor camp. He became deputized to go pick up workers who tried to escape and return them to the labor camp. So in effect, he really was cooperating with and part of the company's plan to keep its workforce captive and in place and working. When we later filed the Department of Justice complaint, this very immigration agent was appointed as the investigator on that complaint. He was the law enforcement official now in charge of the investigation, the very immigration official who had cooperated with the company.
DAVIES: Right. So as long as he was pushing this thing, then you weren't going to get anywhere with what you hoped would be, you know, a human trafficking complaint, a criminal case against the company.
SONI: That's right.
DAVIES: What's interesting here is that what you just said, that this ICE agent was colluding with the company to keep workers in where they were, you know, talking about deporting them and tracking them down, this came out in sworn statements from a civil case, right? In addition to this criminal complaint you made to the Justice Department, there was a civil suit - right? - at which you alleged human trafficking. And it was in taking depositions for that that this collusion emerged. Am I - do I have this right?
SONI: That's exactly right. On the same day that the workers escaped from the labor camp and filed their Department of Justice complaint, they filed a civil suit. They sued the company in court. That case went on for years, and workers were now in hiding. The campaign in Washington, D.C., had fallen apart. We had no idea why, years later, the Department of Justice still was not answering the workers' call to interview them. We didn't quite understand what we were up against. And then we found the smoking gun. In a deposition, a high-up company vice president revealed that he had actually been working closely with an immigration agent from the beginning, the very immigration agent who was the investigator on our case.
DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with labor organizer Saket Soni. His new book is "The Great Escape: A True Story Of Forced Labor And Immigrant Dreams In America." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with labor organizer Saket Soni. His new book is "The Great Escape: A True Story Of Forced Labor And Immigrant Dreams In America."
So, I mean, there's far more to this story than we can tell here. But, you know, it took years. A lot of workers went different places to try and find work as they could. There was a hunger strike. There were so many efforts and setbacks and some successes. In the end, the criminal case from the Department of Justice never happened, right? But there was a civil suit against the company that finally did go to trial in 2015. Tell us what happened.
SONI: That's right. The trial was a massive undertaking. The company had disclosed more than 2 1/2 million documents during discovery. Depositions took hundreds of hours. The attorney at the center of the case - his deposition alone was five days. And the company's legal team basically brought a kitchen sink approach to its defense. It argued that our entire campaign was a nefarious plot by a political hitman - me - to bring down the government's H-2B visa program. It presented its own Indian workforce as a happy family. They talked about a company cricket match they held where a raffle ticket holder got a new TV. And the company's lead attorney really framed the leaders of the campaign as noisy malcontents, people who were just not living in the real world and should be grateful for what came to them. That was the company's strategy.
The jury didn't really buy it. Worker after worker in the trial hit back against the company's defense. And really, they did an extraordinary, courageous job of holding their own. The workers' testimony, in fact, was devastating for the defendants. And eventually the jury found that the company, the attorney in New Orleans and the Indian labor recruiter had committed forced labor and trafficking and mail fraud and wire fraud and a number of other things. The jury awarded plaintiffs millions of dollars in damages. The attorney, of course, appealed the verdict, but the workers got their day in court and won. And maybe the most extraordinary part of this was that, in an unprecedented move as far as I can tell from a company implicated in human trafficking, the CEO of the company issued an apology. It wasn't everything the workers wanted, but it was an apology for how the workers were treated.
DAVIES: And I think the damages - there were actually 11 separate lawsuits, right? And the jury decided in one that there had been trafficking, and then the others quickly settled - over $20 million in damages, I think...
SONI: That's right.
DAVIES: ...To all of the workers. What became of them? Did they get green cards? Did they settle in America?
SONI: Well, the most important thing that happened for them was when the news of the ICE agents' collusion with the company came to light, when The New York Times broke that story, then everything started to move in the U.S. government. This was during the Obama presidency. We clambered back into a bus, went back to Washington. And unlike our first trip to Washington, our second one was full of focus and meetings with with powerful people in D.C. who were shocked at the kind of smoking gun that we were walking around with.
So things started to move. And the government issued special visas, humanitarian visas known as T visas or trafficking visas to all of the workers in the case. So the workers, with those visas in hand, became legal overnight. They wound up being able to bring their families from India and were reunited with their families. And those visas are a pathway to green cards and U.S. citizenship. So even as we're talking, workers are attending citizenship ceremonies all these years later and becoming full Americans. In fact, Aby Raju, the central character of the book, sent me a beautiful photograph a few months ago of voting for the first time as a citizen in Houston in the midterm election.
DAVIES: This is an amazing story of these hundreds of Indian welders and pipefitters who got trapped in Mississippi after being lured over to America to work on rebuilding after Katrina and, after many, many years of organizing and lawsuits, got some measure of justice. A lot of this happened 15 years ago, and you've stayed with it. You've been organizing workers who do disaster recovery work for years. And, you know, we all know that climate change is creating more natural disasters. Is there now a larger workforce that kind of does this on a semi-permanent basis, moving around the country and in herds kind of chasing storms, in effect?
SONI: There really is. You know, although I didn't know it at the time, these Indian workers were among the first in a rising workforce that we call the resilience workforce. These are the people who rebuild America after hurricanes, floods and fires. And they're overwhelmingly immigrant workers. Many, many of them are undocumented. And they're doing the crucial work that lets us come home after extreme weather events, let's us come home after floods and hurricanes and tornadoes and fires. They do this crucial work, but they're hugely vulnerable and deeply exploited as they do it. Those very workers that I met under the Robert E. Lee statue in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, I met them again and again over the years as they went from city to city, town to town, cleaning up and rebuilding after hurricanes. I'd get calls from Houston, from North Carolina, asking for help. I'd go out to protect them from contractors who called the police on payday to avoid paying them and all sorts of other problems.
And as the years went on and as disasters became more frequent and more destructive, this group of workers grew, and I started to see them as America's white blood cells. I was seeing how entire communities were depending on these workers while they were sleeping in cars and falling off roofs and paid little, if at all. So this is the resilience workforce. The workers follow storms, and my team and I at Resilience Force follow the workers, doing what we can to protect them and advocate for them.
DAVIES: White blood cells - they go to trouble and try and rebuild, repair.
SONI: Rebuild, repair and heal.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, the case that you write about in this book was extreme, of people taken thousands of miles and almost held prisoner in a barbed-wire work camp. What are the more typical problems that, you know, this resilience workforce faces as they move into disaster areas?
SONI: Well, what I've seen is that, across the board, immigrant workers are afraid to come forward and report abuse even when they're forced to work in the rain and might fall off a roof. Even when workers are not paid for weeks, they're afraid to come forward because complaining to the authorities could lead to deportation. Contractors, employers could come in and hand them over to law enforcement. That's what workers are largely afraid of. Now, you know, the workers who do rebuilding and repair work after climate disasters are living in their cars. They're waking up in the morning in Home Depot parking lots. They're climbing up on roofs and doing extraordinarily difficult work in the hot sun. And there's not as much as a simple trailer for them to live in. And they face many of the same issues that immigrant workers in the U.S. face across the board - you know, abuse, exploitation, non-payment of wages and conditions that, in some cases, do rise to the legal level of forced labor.
DAVIES: Well, Saket Soni, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SONI: Thank you so much for having me on, Dave.
DAVIES: Saket Soni is founder and director of Resilience Force, a nonprofit that advocates for workers who rebuild communities after weather disasters. His new book is "The Great Escape: The True Story Of Forced Labor And Immigrant Dreams In America." Coming up, Ken Tucker tells us about the new album from Dazy. Loud rock music, he says, is irresistible. This is FRESH AIR.
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