Thursday, March 13, 2008

Indian Welders and Pipefitters File Case Against US Employer

From the Times of India:

Some 500 Indian workers caught in what they claim is a human trafficking racket have asked the Indian government to protect their families in India from vengeful recruiters even as they filed a class action anti
-racketeering lawsuit in the US against their American employer.

The workers, at the centre of human traffic storm in Mississippi and Louisiana, received a surprise telephone call from minister for NRI affairs Vayalar Ravi on Sunday as they held a meeting of the alliance of guest workers for dignity in New Orleans. They said the minister promised his support for their effort to break up what they say is a human trafficking racket by a major US company and Indian recruiters.

While the workers sought a meeting with the Indian ambassador in Washington DC to explain their case, the embassy has already directed the consulate in Houston to investigate the matter. Meantime, the workers also sought the minister’s intervention in preventing the recruiting company in Mumbai, which sent them to the US under false assurances, from intimidating their families in India following the flap.

The case involving the Indian workers and their alleged exploitation is more than a year old. Sometime in 2006, hundreds of welders and pipefitters, mostly from Kerala, responded to a series of advertisement placed by a recruiting company run by Mumbai-based Sachin Dewan promising green cards and permanent residency in US. Over 600 workers from all around India and some from the Gulf paid Dewan up to Rs 10 lakh (about $ 25,000 in today’s rates), often selling their homes and raising loans, for the promised "American dream".

When they arrived in US, they discovered that there were no green cards. Instead, the workers found themselves working for Signal International, a major marine construction company, on ten-month "H-2B’’ visa that bonded them to work for it. Most of the work stemmed from the post-Hurricane Katrina labour shortage in the Louisiana-Mississippi region.

The workers, many of them sent to Pascagoula, Mississippi, say they found the living conditions horrible. They were placed in cramped quarters, 24 to a 24x36 room equipped with bunk beds. They were given substandard food, for which Signal charged them $ 1050 per month, although the company claimed to have hired an Indian cook from New Orleans.

"Welding and pipe-fitting are high stress jobs. We could not even have a decent nights sleep before undertaking these dangerous jobs," said Sabulal Vijayan, a former Signal worker who first began organizing his colleagues for a protest last March, told TOI. Vijayan, who was subsequently fired by Signal, is now on a special extended visa to help US authorities in investigating the case with help from the New Orleans Workers Centre for Racial Justice.

Vijayan says when Signal and recruiter Sachin Dewan saw workers organizing they threatened him with deportation and began retaliating against the dissidents. In one incident, the company sent in armed guards to apprehend the protesters in a pre-dawn raid, as a result of which he says he attempted suicide by cutting his own wrists. "I was desperate...I was ready to die," he says. Signal, on its part, denies all charges and say the company has gone out of its way to make the workers comfortable, spending up to $7 million to build plush new housing facilities.

The living condition has been inspected by local authorities and found to be adequate (dissenting workers say the company dressed up the living quarters before the inspections). The company also denies it has anything to do with promising green cards or permanent residency to the workers, who come under the H2B guest worker visa. The workers allege that Signal was fully aware of Sachin Dewans misleading ads and that company representatives worked closely with Dewan in the recruitment process.

The case eventually attracted the attention of local rights activists, including Saket Soni and Stephen Boykewich, who began to counsel the workers. Amid growing local media attention, more than 100 workers last week escaped the Signal "labour camps" where they had been housed and demanded that the US department of justice prosecute the traffickers. In a demonstration that local TV stations aired, they threw their hard hats en masse at the gates of the company.

The workers say Signal continues to recruit fresh Indian workers through a new Mumbai recruiter S Mansur & Company, who they suspect is a front for Sachin Dewan. They are now demanding that the Indian and US governments put an immediate halt to this international trafficking ring.

Read the full article

Part II, From the Sify News:

A group of about 100 Indian victims of human trafficking in the US has found support from Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi who has promised all help. The workers, who on Wednesday quit working for Signal International at the Pascagoula shipyard in Mississippi, met in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Saturday to discuss their course of action, said Stephen Boykewich, a media spokesperson for the New Orleans Workers' Centre for Racial Justice that is helping them.

The workers were recruited by Dewan Consultants of Mumbai, and brought by Signal, a marine construction company, to the US over a year ago and made to live and work in abysmal conditions.

“The workers demand the US to prosecute Signal for human trafficking and the Indian government to punish recruiter Sachin Dewan,” Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Centre for Racial Justice, told IANS.

Ravi has written to the Indian ambassador in the US, Ronen Sen, to investigate the matter and said his ministry would also issue a show-cause notice to Dewan. The workers have thanked Ravi for his support and are inviting Ambassador Sen to New Orleans for a meeting. “We will present evidence that Signal International and recruiters in both countries conspired to exploit hundreds of Indians in a labour trafficking scheme,” said Sabulal Vijayan, a former employee of Signal and one of the rebelling workers' leaders, in a press release issued by Boykewich. “We also want Ravi to direct Dewan and his associates to refrain from contacting the workers' families in India and intimidating them,” Vijayan added.

Dewan Consultants has distanced itself from the controversy saying its contract with the workers had ended last year.

The workers met officials of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Friday. They also plan to report themselves to the Department of Justice as trafficking victims. Their future course of action will depend on whether they are allowed to stay on and work, as victims of human trafficking generally are.

Besides those who quit, 200 other Indians are still working under similar conditions at the Pascagoula shipyard. “They perhaps don't want to risk leaving at this stage, but will be welcome to join the action that other workers are planning,” Boykewich said.

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