Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Workers Sue Gulf Coast Company

From the NY Times:

NEW ORLEANS — A group of 500 foreign welders and pipefitters brought in to work at Gulf Coast oil rig yards after Hurricane Katrina said Monday that they had sued their employer, claiming they were lured with false promises of permanent-resident status, forced to live in inhumane conditions and then threatened when they protested.

The workers were recruited in India and the United Arab Emirates and brought in late 2006 and early 2007 under the government’s temporary guest worker program. They worked at Signal International, an oil-rig repair and construction company with yards in Pascagoula, Miss., about 85 miles east of here, and in Orange, Tex., about 100 miles east of Houston.

The company said it had brought them in to supplement a labor force depleted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
At a rally here Monday, workers and their lawyers said they had given up life savings, sold family jewelry and paid up to $20,000 in immigration and travel fees after being assured that the company would help them to become permanent residents of the United States.

In a statement, the company called the workers’ charges “baseless and unfounded” and said it had spent “over $7 million constructing state-of-the-art housing complexes” for the workers.

The company said that the “vast majority of the workers” recruited had been satisfied with their conditions and that the workers were being paid “in excess” of prevailing rates and in full compliance with the law.

Workers and their advocates disputed those assertions. Ignorant of American immigration law, advocates said, the workers were unaware that they had been brought in only temporarily.

“They didn’t know they were guest workers,” said Stephen Boykewich of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “They thought they were getting permanent status.”

The green cards enabling residency never materialized, according to the lawsuit, and the workers were forced to live in overcrowded guarded “bunkhouses” at Signal International, with inadequate toilets and unhygienic kitchens that frequently made them ill.

The class-action lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Ala., among other groups.

The workers’ assertions are the latest in a series of complaints about exploitation of foreign laborers on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Previous complaints have involved Hispanic hotel and construction workers and farm laborers and have centered on low pay and harsh working conditions.

In the summer of 2006, Hispanic hotel workers sued a prominent New Orleans developer over inadequate pay, and last month, fruit pickers walked off the job in a parish north of here over exploitative conditions.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has also sued on behalf of immigrant workers involved in the reconstruction and cleanup of New Orleans after the storm. It maintains that immigrants brought in under the guest worker program are “systematically exploited and abused,” all over the country.

No explicit information in this article as to how the workers are approaching this, but according to the Hindustan Times, they are filing under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

The 120 workers who walked out of Signal International facilities in Mississippi last week rallied outside the office of the lawyer, who acted as a recruiter to bring them from India to the United States.

"The reason we gave up our homes to come here was to get permanent residency," said Vijaka Kumaran, 34. Kumaran sold his wife’s jewellery to get the $15,000 he was charged to go to the US.

The H2B workers complaint alleges that recruiters conspired with Signal to control the workers with "a broad scheme of psychological coercion, threats of serious harm and physical restraint, and threatened abuse of the legal process."

The workers attempted to present lawyer Malvern Burnett with a federal lawsuit filed in a district court in New Orleans that names two recruiters and Signal as defendants and accuses the companies of human trafficking.

The 82-page complaint claims the defendants violated their rights besides violating nine federal laws. It claims they violated Trafficking Victims Protection Act by having both forced labour and trafficking. They also claim violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Klu Klux Klan Act of 1871, fraud, breach of contract, violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and false imprisonment, assault and batter and infliction of emotional harm.

In India, the government suspended licences of two Mumbai-based recruiting firms hiring Indian workers for Signal International, accused of ill-treating workers in Mississippi. Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi told Hindustan Times, “Licences of Dewan Consultants and S Mansur & Company have been suspended. The report of Indian ambassador in the US is expected in two days time”. The government move comes two days after the HT reported the inhuman living conditions of 120 Indian workers in a small town in Mississippi.
Besides Mumbai-based Dewan Consultants, another Mumbai-based recruiter, S Mansur & Company, was carrying out the recruitment process for Signal by allegedly charging $15,000 for a visa — a charge proprietor Syed Mansur Razvi denied. “ I am allowed to charge just Rs 10,000 for processing an application. The Ministry should have questioned me before suspending the licence,” Razvi said.

The Ministry has issued show-cause notices to both the firms, asking, "why action should not be taken against them for charging money from innocent people to illegally send them abroad to work in inhuman conditions and also for enticing them with the promise of green cards", sources said.

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