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Rights of Legal Workers Ignored Despite Slave Conditions

May 2007
Rights of Legal Workers Ignored Despite Slave Conditions

Joseph Jacob spent his adult life doing backbreaking labor in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, to earn enough money to come to the United States. He then paid $14,000 to a recruiting firm in India, representing Signal International, to be brought to the US. "I spent all the money I had to get the visa, which the recruiter promised would be a permanent residence visa," says Jacob, "but that visa never came, and finally he said they could get us a H2B visa. That would give us 10 months of work, and if the company renewed it, we might get as much as 30 months. I thought that was the only way I'd ever be able to get back the money they'd taken."

Signal brought in about 300 Indian workers to Mississippi in December and another 300 to work in Texas as part of the H-2B visa program, as welders. Workers got promises of pay and working conditions, and the majority sold their houses and all their possessions for the opportunity. Instead, they ended up in conditions they compare to "slavery". They were promised $18 an hour for up to 30 months work but most only got half that amount. They also had to pay Signal $35 a day to stay in company labor camp barracks inside the yard, which consisted of "units" holding 24 men and 2 bathrooms.

Workers began meeting at a local church to discuss how to get Signal to refund their contractor fee, and to protest their working conditions. They organized a group called Signal H-2B Workers United. When the company learned of it, it conducted a raid of the camp. Company representatives entered with armed security guards and took six workers. The company locked the workers in a room and told them they would be sent back to India. One of these workers, Sabu Lal, ran from guards into a bathroom and emerged with bloodied arms as the result of what witnesses believed to be an attempted suicide, and was taken to a hospital.

"Lal and I are from the same place in India," Joseph explains. "I knew he had sold his home, and had no place to return to. He was only able to make back a small part of the thousands of dollars he paid to the recruiter, and he said he couldn't go home like that." Recently, a Punjabi worker was threatened with termination and being sent back to India. Subsequently, he suffered a fatal heart attack, which fellow workers attributed to the stress of the situation. The workers collected money amongst themselves to the send the body back to India.

The Signal H-2B Workers United group has issued numerous statements, and has rallied others to sign its statement of support. They demand that Signal International: (1) Stop the firing of these workers and reinstate the worker who attempted suicide. (2) Release imprisoned workers immediately. (3) Return the money the workers paid to the company to come to the United States. (4) Ensure basic human rights and standards for food and accommodation. (5) Assure that workers are paid the wage they were promised.

So far, nothing is resolved, but the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance and Southern Poverty Law Center are going to court on behalf of the fired workers to stop their deportations.

US Immigration & Customs Enforcement has taken no action against this company that is openly abusing the human rights of its nonimmigrant workers. Plants like Signal's involved Indian workers and isn't raided because workers in it were legally recruited by the company. Others, however, despite fair working conditions, are raided and penalized for hiring undocumented workers. It is important to remember that any system of fair immigration enforcement should focus as much on the rights of workers as on the legality of their work.

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