Monday, March 31, 2008

U.S. Firm Accused of Trafficking Stops Hiring Foreign Workers

From the Times of India:

An American company accused of... human trafficking while bringing in Indian guest workers to the US said on Thursday that it is freezing hiring of foreign labour while blaming recruiters and middlemen for the scandal.

Signal International, a subcontractor for the military giant Northrop Grumman, which is involved in post-Katrina reconstruction in the US Gulf Coast said in a statement that it is "not hiring any new temporary workers under the H2-B programme until it is reformed to better protect foreign workers and US companies that were misled by recruiters."

The statement came even as more than 100 Indian workers who were on Signal rolls in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas marched into Washington DC for a meeting with Indian ambassador Ronen Sen, demanding action to stop what they described as "modern day slavery".

The workers say they paid recruiters up to $20,000 each after they were promised permanent US residency to work as welders and pipefitters for Signal.

Instead, they received 10-month guest-worker visas and were forced into inhumane living conditions at company facilities in the Gulf Coast.

While the workers have filed a class-action lawsuit against Signal, the Indian Embassy, under pressure from New Delhi and NGO activists in the US, has launched an inquiry into the allegations.

But the agitated workers, fronted by aggressive local NGO leadership, are unhappy with the pace of action and also the embassies conversations with Signal on the matter. On its part, the Embassy says it has to listen to and look into all aspects of the case.

In an unprecedented three-hour meeting with ambassador Sen on Thursday, the workers representatives demanded a commitment that the embassy "would always put the workers first in any future handling of the case, rather than the company that held them in forced labour".

Assurances from the ambassador that their grievances would be looked into left them dissatisfied.

"The workers expressed disappointment with ambassador Sen’s inability to provide a concrete timeline on actions to open US-Indian talks on protecting future Indian workers from abuses of the guest worker program. The ambassador also refused to advocate for the workers with the US department of justice and other US agencies, claiming that protocol forbade him from doing so," a statement issued by the local NGO New Orleans Workers’ Centre For Racial Justice that is representing the workers, said.

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