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American dream sours for these Indians

April 05, 2007 03:07 IST

Two dozen Indians, who came to work in the United States Gulf coast as welders and fitters after paying recruiters up to $20,000, have nowhere to go.

They are the subject of a battle between immigrant rights advocates and Signal International, a marine and fabrication company.

In the fall of 2006, Signal International recruited 289 workers from India for its shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi. These workers, many of them from southern India, were brought to work on temporary H2B visas (granted for temporary or seasonal non-agricultural jobs with a US employer).

Rights organisations say many of the workers, who paid between $15,000 and $20,000 to come to America, lived in substandard conditions -- 24 of them cramped in a single trailer, and paying a mandatory $35 a day for lodging and food.

"My relative said he did not have enough space even to keep a radio," said George Thomas, an entrepreneur who has a kin among the 264 workers from India who are still employed with Signal. Thomas's name has been changed and he did not want his location to be disclosed as it could jeopardize his relative's job.

"The workers have suffered fraud, kidnapping, false imprisonment and more under that program [H2B] by the employer, by the labor contractor who recruited them and the attorney who did the labor certifications," said. Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. 

The workers were brought as first-class fitters and welders, which would entitle them to $18-an-hour wages. However, activists said, when they began to organise, some were told their salaries would be reduced to half; they were later fired.

The firing was illegal, Saket Soni, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, said, adding that under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a worker in America cannot be fired for organizing or attending a meeting.

"The workers have been explicitly told that they are being fired for participating in meetings," he said. 

Chandler said March 9, company representatives entered the workers' camp, singled out six workers and took them away. "They were locked by the employer in a room on the company's premises," he said.

Not wanting to be sent back to India, one of them, who had sold off all his possessions for the visa, went to the bathroom 'and emerged with bloodied arms as the result of what witnesses believed to be an attempted suicide,' a release from the Immigrant Rights Alliance said.

The Alliance approached the Pascagoula police, which came to the plant and freed them.

John Sanders, corporate program manager at Signal International, said the employees were not locked, and instead held in a lounge in what were once classrooms. Sanders says after the company told the US border patrol and customs office that they were planning to terminate the workers, they were told not to tell the workers in advance that they were being sent back.

This was to prevent them from running away and the agencies having the problem of undocumented workers in the country. An H2B visa binds the employee to the employer.

Early morning March 9, Signal rounded up the workers, he said, and they were made to sit on a couch where some of the security guards detained them. They were to be sent to the airport in a van.

Soni said in solidarity with their co-workers who had been fired, Indian workers refused to work that day. The company dismissed eight of the 11 workers that day. Another 14 left the company. Soni said they are living in hiding, "but they are fighting to be reinstated."

Sanders said the workers paid a lot of money to come to the US, but did not have the required skills. "Some of them didn't even know how to light a torch, I am told," he said. Signal decided it could not pay them $18 an hour, and made them second-class welders. When they did not have the skills there either, it put them on a 'firewatch' and paid them $9.50.

But the immigration attorney told the company it would have to either pay the prevailing wage in Mississippi for fitters and welders -- about $12.75 -- or fire them.

Sanders, who led the local press, March 14, on a tour of the workers living area, said those who are skilled continue to get full wages, raises, and promotions. 

In January, in what Sanders calls an unrelated incident, one of the workers fled Signal. January 4 was his last day at work, Sanders said. Later, he got a call from the Indian recruiter saying that the worker had died of a heart attack January 18.

"This was two weeks after he voluntarily left Signal," said Sanders, pointing out that the worker had missed work for several days in December and January. "He was aware that he was going to be deported," he said.

The workers were hired through a firm, Global Resources, which put Signal -- which had lost some of its workforce in the aftermath of Katrina -- in touch with an Indian recruiter and a US-based attorney. Signal's representatives also went to India.

Sanders said Signal then did not know the workers had paid up to $20,000 for the visa. "The facts had been misrepresented to us," he said. "Signal received no money at any time from the Indian workers."

Soni, however, said workers have proof of paying installment of payments to the attorney. "The Indian recruiter has been inside the company camp, on company property, to talk to the workers."  

Thomas said the recruiter initially demanded Rs 300,000 (about $6,666) from his relative for the job, then raised the amount to Rs 400,000 (about $8888). Once the visa was approved and stamped on the passport, he confiscated the passport and demanded Rs 600,000 (about $13,333), which he was paid. His relative is not satisfied with the living conditions, but takes home $700 a week after putting in about 70 hours of work, Thomas said.

Monika Joshi