As Indian workers at a shipyard in New Orleans, US, protest over the inhuman treatment meted out to them, the Indian government claims it would look into the matter and see what it can do to bring an end to their miseries.
It seems to be a case of broken promises and shattered dreams. They had gone to America for job opportunity. But they now face the risk of being deported, after having lost everything at that.
AdvertisementThey marched outside the gates of their former employer Thursday.
They sang the protest song, "We Shall Overcome" in Malayalam, as most of them hailed from the southern Indian state of Kerala. Then, in a symbol of resistance, the workers tossed off their hard hats.
They had been brought in to work as welders and pipe-fitters at the Signal International shipyards in Pascagoula, but were treated as slaves, they say. It is all a case of human trafficking, they assert.
They talked of living "like pigs in a cage" in a company-run "work camp."
The workers charge that Signal forced them to live in substandard housing, with 24 men crammed into a small room. The men say Signal charged them more than $1,000 a month to live in company housing.
"For more than one year, hundreds of Indian workers at Signal International have been living like slaves," said Sabulal Vijayan, a former Signal worker. "Today they are coming out to declare their freedom. This trafficking needs to end."
Vijayan was fired last year after trying to organize his fellow employees. Facing deportation, he took drastic action.
"I slit my wrists to kill myself. There was no other option for me. I didn't know what I was doing. The situation forced me to do so. I was in a horrible situation. Signal was retaliating against me for organizing my people for our rights," he told the group of fellow workers and visiting media.
"The workers are coming out of the company to declare their freedom. We need freedom in this country. I am a human being. That is my message," said Vijayan.
The workers and their lawyers say the workers are victims of human trafficking - tricked into a scheme and then abused and exploited with horrific work conditions. The Pascagoula plant is located on the eastern side of the small Gulf Coast city that was damaged during Hurricane Katrina. Outside the gates, a small sign directs drivers to the "man camp," the Signal-built bunkers where the workers were forced to live.
For many, the journey to the secluded compound began with a newspaper advertisement.
A recruitment firm based in Mumbai, India's commercial metropolis, had placed a series of newspaper advertisements promising lucrative jobs and permanent residential status. Those who fell for the ads were charged Rs.10 lakh per head.
Rajan Pazhambalakode, 35, who was on vacation from a job he held with British Petroleum in Russia, was one such. He said he contacted Sachin Dewan, and was told he must pay $20,000 within 10 days.
"On December 5, 2006, I looked one last time at my house, and I sold it to arrange the money," Pazhambalakode said. "My house was worth about $30,000, but I had to get a buyer that day."
Since half the men worked during the day and the other half at night, Pazhambalakode said they were never allowed to turn the lights on in the rooms.
Kurian David too had sold his home. He never realized he was changing his place for virtual hell.
He navigated through a maze of two-foot wide passageways in the bottom of the ship, 10 minutes from any assistance if something were to happen to him. There he welded metal and glass, creating smoke and releasing carbon dioxide, he said.
The cells were dark and the smoke made it impossible to see someone standing as close as three-feet away David said they had to work 10-hour days, but only Indian workers would have to work multiple days a week in the worst conditions, others would do alternate days.
Food came from the cafeteria, and purchasing or preparing food was not allowed. David said they were served stale bread and jam for breakfast. They packed lunch. When it was cold, he said, the food was like ice, and when it was hot, the food was rotten by lunch. "We had to sit in the garbage," he said. Pipe-fitting and welding requires crawling through small "cells" within the hull of the ship.
David said some workers had asked to leave the property and find cheaper housing nearby where they could cook. But Signal employees told them it wasn't an option. They were forbidden to have guests and had no means to leave the compound, David said. There were no phones, either.
There was one TV room for 50 men, said Hemant Khuttan, 27. And no other forms of entertainment. "We couldn't sleep," Khuttan said. "We couldn't sit in our beds. We would spend our time lying there, thinking about how we got caught in this situation." If they complained, Khuttan said, Signal employees told them they could return to India.
The workers have reported their situation to the U.S. Department of Justice and are calling for Signal International to be prosecuted on human trafficking charges.
But the company strongly denied the workers' allegations. The company released a statement saying, "Unfortunately, a few of the workers whom Signal had sponsored for H2B visas and recruited have made baseless and unfounded allegations against Signal concerning their employment and living conditions."
According to the statement, "The vast majority of the workers whom Signal recruited has been satisfied with the employment and living conditions at Signal."
Signal called its housing complex "state of the art" and said government inspections have "found that Signal's practices and facilities are fully compliant with the law."
The Mississippi Gulf Coast has faced a severe labor shortage in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and many companies have replenished their workforce with overseas labor brought in under a guest worker plan. Human rights groups, however, charge that many foreign workers have been exploited by their employers.
"The U.S. State Department calls it 'a repulsive crime' when recruiters and employers in other parts of the world bind guest workers with crushing debts and threats of deportation," said Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice.
"This is precisely what is happening on the Gulf Coast."
The workers say they took this action not just for themselves, but to prevent future Indian workers from facing similar circumstances. As one worker put it, "We want the people who come after us not to suffer the same fate."
Those who walked off the job are staying temporarily in New Orleans. They are hoping the federal Department of Justice will launch an investigation into their concerns.
Meantime Indian federal minister for Overseas Indian AffairsVayalar Ravi says he has ordered an inquiry into the condition of the 600 Indian workers with the Signal International.
While the Indian Ambassador to US Ronen Sen has been asked to take up the matter with the US authorities and the company and report back to the government, Vayalar Ravi warns stringent action would be taken against the recruiting agency too.
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