Around 100 Indian shipyard workers who have quit their jobs in the US, protesting abysmal working conditions, finally managed to meet their country's ambassador.
The meeting came about after a long march from Mississippi to Washington. Earlier Ronen Sen had been charged with avoiding meeting them.
AdvertisementThe Indian ambassador said he would do all he could to protect their rights.
The embassy and the Indian government would go the extra mile in taking care of the workers' safety, security and dignity, Sen told workers who reached the Indian embassy carrying placards and shouting slogans after their 1,500-km "journey for justice" that began in New Orleans on March 18. They had quit their jobs on March 6.
Chanting "we want freedom, we want justice," the men carried signs demanding they be treated with dignity and held up pictures of their family members left behind in India.
They have described their protest as a satyagraha, a word used by Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi to describe his non-violent battle against injustice.
The Indian ambassador met the workers for over three hours, listening to their concerns and demands.
He also urged the workers to report any allegations of mistreatment to him so that the embassy could work to help improve the guest worker system.
The workers demanded an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the case.
"I will convey this request to our government," Sen said.
When they sought the Indian embassy's intervention on the issue of their alleged surveillance by immigration authorities, Sen said he would do what he could, but exhorted them against breaching established diplomatic protocol by directly interacting with such agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Immigration and Customs Services or the Department of Justice.
The embassy would operate through the State Department only, he clarified.
When workers said they needed more than symbolic assurance, some concrete action, the ambassador maintained, "We do not issue ultimatums here. We can take certain action in our country, but cannot give any timeline to US authorities on how to go about it. We can only sensitize them and we have done it," Sen said in response to questions.
He, however, hastened to add, "I will do what is in the interests of the citizens of India".
Meanwhile the Mississippi-based Signal International has denied they were mistreated. It sought to shift the blame on to their Indian recruiters, Global Resources, saying it was they who had misled the men. The contract had since been terminated.
"Both Signal and our employees were misled. We are going to stand by our workers and do what we can to help them get justice. The recruiters' abuses cannot be tolerated," Signal International President and CEO Richard Marler said.
In the US they were paid wages above the local average and given good accommodation, he insisted.
Signal would not new temporary workers under the H2B guest worker programme until it was "reformed to better protect foreign workers and US companies that were misled by recruiters".
Temporary workers had been given the same benefits as other workers, including health insurance and the accommodation charge included food, laundry and other services.
"We think that anyone who uses the word 'slave conditions' has little respect for the truth or the use of that phrase," Marler added.
Global Resources has in turn denied any wrongdoing, saying it recruited the workers to the terms of its agreement with Signal International and that the men's treatment since was down to the employer.
In 2006, some 500 men from across India each paid recruiters up to $20,000 for what they were told would be a new life.
They were given temporary visas and jobs at Signal International, a marine construction company on the Mississippi Gulf Coast which needed extra workers because of a shortage of skilled labour following Hurricane Katrina.
39-year-old former Signal worker Sabulal Vijayan, a father-of-two from the southern Indian state of Kerala, told the BBC he had sold everything he had to come to the US to try to earn a better life for his family but was now left with nothing.
The 39-year-old fitter said he was threatened with losing his job when he complained about the men's treatment last year - at which point fear and despair led him to attempt suicide.
"I slit my wrists, tried to commit suicide, because there is nothing left for me to go home to," he said, adding that he had been treated in hospital for three days afterwards.
Vijayan said the men had been living in "slave-like conditions" with cramped accommodation, nowhere to keep their belongings and inadequate food.
And while the wage of about $19 an hour was good, he said, it would have been impossible to earn enough to pay back the fee they were charged initially in the 10 months allowed by their visas.
They were unable to leave and seek other work because that would have invalidated their visa and forced them to return to India worse-off than when they left.
"We need to change this system to one that helps the employees who are suffering, not the employers," he said.
Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, called on the Indian ambassador to the US to help "almost 100 brave, courageous Indian guest workers".
He said the men had been held for 18 months "in forced labour in a labour camp" before walking out of their jobs and reporting Signal International to the US Department of Justice (DoJ) as a "human trafficker".
The workers, backed by Soni's organisation and others including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have also filed a federal anti-racketeering lawsuit against their recruiters.