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From Guest Workers to Bonded Laborers

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May 2008
From Guest Workers to Bonded Laborers

By ALKA ROY

Under the low-ceiling of the Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, about 100 Indian workers with tired faces huddled together holding up placards that read: “I am a Man” and “Dignity.” They borrowed the words from the historic 1968 black sanitation workers’ struggle in Memphis. But theirs is a modern-day story that is not uncommon among migrant guest workers in the United States.

What is uncommon is the courageous stand that these workers have taken against the exploitation. On March 6, 2008, this group of Indian guest workers walked off in protest from their job citing false promises by their recruiters as well as inhuman conditions and ill-treatment by their employer, Signal International. Atlanta was one of the stops where they held a march and a press conference to draw attention to their case and to the larger issue of the abuse of the guest worker program. They ended their march in Washington, D.C., with rallies and meetings with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen and other officials.

Not quite the American dream

In late 2006, over 500 Indian workers were brought in as welders and pipe fitters for Signal International, an oilrig construction and repair company in Pascagoula, Mississippi and Orange, Texas. Each worker paid between $15,000 to $20,000 to recruiting agents in India and the United States for this “opportunity”. They were led to believe by the recruiters that the arrangement would get them a permanent residency in the country.

Many workers are sole or primary providers for their families and borrowed against their family home, properties or took high-interest loans in order to raise the money for the initial cost. But they were lured by the opportunity to settle in the United States and bring their families here. The workers maintain that they were rushed through the process and were not given details about the restrictions and implications of the H-2B visa or the guest-worker program by their Indian and U.S. recruiters. For example, they were not told that an H-2B would bind them to a single employer and was only valid for a 10-month period. They had not expected that the room and board promised to them would cost them $1,050 a month (deducted from their wages) and would force them to live in a trailer with 23 other men, with substandard food and living arrangements.   

They had not imagined that they would not get paid for the hours or the rates stipulated in their contract and that if they weren’t paid the wages due to them, they would not have much of a legal recourse. The workers didn’t thing that “something like that would happen in America.”

Hardly “Guest” Workers

A report on the guest worker program in the United States by the Southern Poverty Law Center is titled Close to Slavery. The report concludes that “the H-2 guest worker program is fundamentally flawed. Because guest workers are tied to a single employer and have little or no ability to enforce their rights, they are routinely exploited.”   It recommends that “if the program is permitted to continue at all, it should be radically altered to address the vast disparity in power between guest workers and their employers.”

According to their research and interviews, the workers are “routinely cheated out of wages, forced to mortgage their future to obtain low-wage, temporary jobs (the practice of recruiters and companies requiring high up-front cost is common with the program), held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents, forced to live in squalid conditions and denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.”   The women workers often endure overt sexual harassment and assault.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel has called the guest worker program “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.” The report calls it a “modern-day system of indentured servitude.” It cites consistent lack of oversight, inadequate enforcement, absence of legal recourse, the blacklisting of employees who speak out and the Department of Labor’s complacency towards companies who abuse the program. All this leaves the exploited foreign workers with very few real remedies.

Workers Speak Out

When the Indian workers at Signal International began to organize against their long hours, low wages and squalid living conditions, the company used armed guards to intimidate the workers and threatened to deport the “troublemakers”. According to the press release, when a sense of desperation made one of the workers slit his wrist in a suicide attempt, Signal released the organizers (it was holding) but fired them.

Before the workers arrived in Atlanta on their way to Washington, D.C., over 100 workers had walked off their jobs and reported Signal to the Department of Justice as a “trafficker.” They had the support of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and Southern Poverty Law Center and solidarity statements from various other organizations. They have also filed a federal anti-racketeering class action lawsuit against the U.S. recruiter Malvern Burnett and other recruiters who were involved.

According to the press release, Congressman George Miller has demanded details of the Labor probe from the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao.

Signal’s Response

According to an AP report, Signal has denied allegations that it mistreated workers but has severed its contract with recruiter Global Resources and plans to sue the firm. Signal’s CEO Rich Marler was quoted as saying that “he was hurt by allegations that workers were subjected to poor living conditions, saying Signal provided catered meals, 24-hour transportation services, Internet access and other amenities.”

Signal also released a statement that it is “not hiring any new temporary workers under the H-2B program until it (the program) is reformed to better protect foreign workers and U.S. companies that were misled by recruiters.”

The company has admitted that last year it learned that the recruiting company Global Resources and an immigration attorney working on the case demanded “highly excessive fees” and made “false promises about the green card process”. But the workers say Signal was aware of the violations.

March to Washington, D.C.

Signal’s statements came on the heels of the workers’ march to the nation’s capital and the meeting with United Nations officials in New York. The men, supported by New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, went to Washington, D.C. calling for the companies involved to be barred from participating in visa programs. They are also urging discussions between the U.S. and Indian governments on improving those programs.

The men are reported to have been dissatisfied with their meeting with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen. Among other demands, they asked that the recruiters in India be regulated and that the Indian government take steps to highlight the abuses of the guest worker program within the context of immigration reform. They also appealed for the safety and protection of their families against retaliations.

But they were not satisfied by the response from the ambassador. “What we need is action, not just symbolic assurances,” said one of the workers, Rajan Pazhambalakode, according to the AP report. The Workers’ Center for Racial Justice issued a statement on behalf of the workers: “The workers expressed disappointment with Ambassador Sen’s inability to provide a concrete timeline on actions to open U.S.-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 U.S. Department of Justice and other U.S. agencies, claiming that protocol forbade him from doing so.” “We are not satisfied because the ambassador is locked in protocols. But human trafficking does not follow protocols,” Sabulal Vijayan, a former Signal worker and organizer with the group Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, said after the meeting.

The Road Ahead

“They are really amazing people. They are so brave to come to Washington and go before congressional members and go to briefing – brave and inspirational,” Deepa Iyer, the executive director of SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together), said. Iyer’s organization found out about the case a year ago and organized meetings and community forums with the workers in the capital.

She has consistently observed the South Asians attending the forums as “being appalled and surprised that such exploitation is ongoing. People who hear workers speak become emotionally connected with their personal lives.” “We definitely worry about them. We hope that they are OK,” Iyer said when asked of the long legal battles ahead for these workers. “They [the workers] long for a community who will support them,” she said.

[A blog started by the Indian workers can be found at http://nolaworkerscenter.wordpress.com]


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