Two months after they quit their jobs in the US shipping firm Signal International, more than 100 Indian workers still uncertain about their future. Meantime Jobs with Justice, a non-profit organization has launched a campaign urging the Congress to hold a hearing on their plight.
After Hurricane Katrina forced many African-American workers to flee their flooded communities on the Gulf Coast many firms resorted to the US government guest worker program known as H2B and Signal International was one such, the JWJ says.
Signal International operates two shipyards in Pascagoula, MS and four in Port Arthur and Orange, TX. Signal makes huge floating oil rigs for the offshore fields in the Gulf.
When Signal International needed workers to rebuild the shipping industry, they did not hire and train the local population. Instead, Signal used the exploitative "guest worker" visas and corrupt recruiters to hire cheap labor.
By the end of 2006 there were over 300 skilled Indian workers at the Pascagoula shipyard, and the company had extended the H2B program to its Texas shipyards.
The Indian recruiters promised them permanent jobs, green cards, and eventually the right to bring their families to America. To raise the money the Indian workers borrowed large sums and often sold their homes.
Welders and pipe-fitters from India paid recruiters up to $20,000 for the promise of temporary visas for themselves and their families. Upon arrival to the U.S. these workers were placed in cramped, unsanitary housing, charged exorbitant rent, had their passports taken from them, and were even physically beaten when they spoke out against these unacceptable conditions.
Their working and living conditions in the Gulf Coast amounted to modern day human slavery.
This is an all-too-familiar story of the exploitation and victimization of migrant workers, not very different from the fate of tens of millions of victims of a version of 21st century slavery that tarnishes work from China through the Gulf Emirates, from the Ivory Coast through Europe to the Americas, the JWJ remarks acidly.
In May 2007, six of the Indian workers, including Sabulal Vijayan and Joseph Jacob, were held captive by armed guards in the shipyard and later fired for organizing against their mistreatment. The other three hundred Indian workers briefly went on strike in support of the six organizers, but were intimidated back to work.
Holders of H2B visas are not permitted to seek other jobs, and are liable for immediate deportation back to India if they lose their jobs at Signal, which would be disastrous because of the debts the workers had incurred to pay the recruiters.
Fighting against despair (one attempted suicide), the fired workers made contact with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), a coalition of labor and civil rights groups that had championed the rights of Latino immigrant workers before and after Katrina. Lacking the linguistic skills for communicating with the Hindi-, Tamil- and Malayam- speaking Indian workers, MIRA called in Hindi-speaking organizer Saket Soni from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice. The workers began to organize under the aegis of the New Orleans-based Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity.
On March 6, 2008, nearly a hundred Indian workers walked off the job in Pascalousa, sang "We Shall Overcome" in their native languages, and tossed off their hard hats as a symbol of their renouncing "human trafficking."
Speaking on their behalf, Saket Soni said: "It's time for Congress to wake up to the fact that the guest worker program is a path to an American nightmare." The workers demanded that the US and Indian governments negotiate an agreement on guest workers that reflects the interests of workers rather than merely that of recruiters and corporations.
A dozen Indian workers and their leaders together with Saket Soni attended the Jobs with Justice National Conference.
The Signal's own website is now calling on Congress to mandate a licensing requirement for the H2B Temporary Worker Program. Signal International President and CEO Richard Marler announced that Signal would no longer hire new temporary workers under the H2B Program until it was reformed to better protect foreign workers and U.S. companies that were misled by recruiters.
Signal also said that it will also pursue claims against Global Resources, its principal Michael Pol, other recruiters, and immigration attorney Malvern Burnett for charging the temporary workers excessive fees and making false promises about the green card process. Signal also promised to help its current temporary workers get the visas necessary to remain at the company.
On 5 May 2008, Signal issued a "Recruitment of Foreign Nationals Fraud Advisory." Stating that Signal had recently received information of fraudulent activity abroad in Signal's name in the recruitment of foreign nationals for H-2B visas, and was taking all measures possible to end this fraudulent activity including working with law enforcement and regulatory authorities.
Signal advised that it was not currently recruiting abroad for foreign workers for any of its facilities, and that any such offer should be reported to local authorities, U.S. consultates, and Signal as fraudulent.
In the circumstances the JWJ is circulating a memorandum and collecting signatures in order to urge the Congress to hold hearings on Signal International and their recruiters, and to ensure the workers can remain in the country legally while their cases are heard.