Guest Workers Fired After Protesting 'Slave' Conditions

New America Media, News Feature, David Bacon Posted: Mar 13, 2007

EDITOR’S NOTE: Guest workers from India accuse a Mississippi shipyard of exploiting and treating them like slaves, reports NAM associate editor David Bacon. We regret that that the original version of the story that was posted did not include the comments from the CEO of Signal. This is the corrected version.

SAN FRANCISCO - Hundreds of guest workers from India are protesting conditions in a Pascagoula shipyard that immigrant rights activists compare to slavery. Many gathered in a church on March 11 in this Gulf Coast port, after their employer, Signal International, threatened to send some of the workers home. Signal is a large corporation that repairs and services oil drilling platforms around the world,

According to Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, “they were hired in India by a labor recruiter sent by Signal. They had to pay exorbitant amounts to the company, to the recruiter and to the attorney who did the labor certification for them.”

Signal brought about 300 workers from India in December to work in its Mississippi yard, and another 300 to work in two yards in Texas. The workers are part of the H2B visa program, in which the US government allows companies to recruit workers outside the country, and bring them here under contract. The visas are good for ten months, but the company can renew them for those it wants to keep longer. The workers must remain employed, and if they lose their jobs, they must go home.

Workers say they were promised jobs as welders and fitters, and had to pay as much as $20,000 each to the recruiting contractor, Global Industry, Signal’s caterer. Workers also say they were promised that Signal would refund the money.

“I had to pay #14,000,” said one of those workers, Joseph Jacob. “I worked for years in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, and I spent all the money I had to get the visa, which the recruiter promised would be a permanent residence visa. But that visa never came, and finally he said they could get us a H2B visa. That would give us ten 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 CEO Dick Marler said the company had sent observers to oversee recruitment and testing in India, but that they were unaware of how much workers were paying for visas. “We weren’t in that part of the loop,” he said, “but the workers paid that money with their eyes wide open, and our recruiters tell us that’s perfectly normal for people in India.”

Signal put the Indian guest workers to work in the yard alongside US workers doing the same job – welding and fitting. The company claims it pays workers from India the same wages as domestic employees. The guest workers say they were promised $18 an hour, but many were paid only half that, after the company found they were unqualified. Marler explained some workers were reclassified from first to second class welders, and their wages reduced. He said he was willing to keep six unskilled workers on “fire watch,” but that his lawyers said the company had to send them back. “The unskilled workers tried to game the system, and lied about their skills,” he alleged.

Out of their wages, workers pay an additional $35 per day to stay in a labor camp Signal set up inside the yard. “The conditions are very bad here for the H2B workers,” Joseph said bitterly. “Twenty-four of us live in a room in a barracks that measures 12 feet by 18 feet, sleeping on bunk beds. There are two toilets for all of us and only four sinks. We have to get up at 3:30 in the morning, just so all of us have time to use the bathroom before going to work.”

A month ago, the Indian guest workers began meeting in a local church to discuss how they might get the company to refund the huge sums they paid to come to the U.S., and to protest the bad conditions. They organized a group, Signal H2B Workers United. It was after the company found out, they say, that it accused workers of being unqualified for their jobs and cut their pay. Eight were told they were completely incapable, and Signal announced it was sending them back to India immediately. Joseph was fired. “I am now terminated because I attended the meeting,” he says. “That’s what the company vice-president told me.”

Marler said the incident didn’t happen “to my knowledge.”

When the company announced the terminations, one worker disappeared. Another, Sabu Lal, slashed his wrists and was taken to the Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula. He told the Mississippi Press that dying would be better than being sent home. “Lal and I are from the same place in India,” Joseph explained. “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.”

Company security guards locked the fired workers in what they call the TV Room, and wouldn’t let them leave. Their coworkers contacted the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, which went to the Pascagoula Police Department. The police went out to the yard and eventually freed the imprisoned workers. Outside the yard, dozens of workers and activists denounced the firings and mistreatment.

“We’ve learned about case after case of workers in Mississippi, Louisiana and all along the gulf in these conditions,” Chandler said. “There are thousands of guest workers who have been brought in since Katrina, and subjected to this same treatment. Mexican guest workers in Amelia, Louisiana, were held in the same way. They also got organized, and came to Pascagoula to support the workers here when they heard what happened.”

According to Chandler, Signal imported hundreds of workers from Peru a year ago, and after sending them home, brought the present group of guest workers from India to replace them. He says the experience of these workers highlights the problems inherent in proposals introduced into Congress over the last two years, which would set up similar schemes for the importation of as many as 400,000 guest workers per year.

“Organizations that are fighting for the rights of workers and advocating on behalf of workers should be totally opposed to these kind of programs,” he declared. “The conditions that people work in here are so exploitative they’re worse than the conditions for even undocumented workers.”

The Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance and the Southern Poverty Law Center plan to go to court to stop the deportations. Meanwhile, workers say they are determined to continue challenging the company until the money they paid the contractor is returned to them.

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User Comments

Joyce Raby on Mar 30, 2007 at 12:07:10 said:

This is the first that I have heard and read about this scandal. Our Congress and our President need to wake up and take action. I truly do not know if this will happen. We have got to make them accountable for all of this scandal and corruption that is happening right under our noses.

Leela Mathew on Mar 19, 2007 at 07:25:42 said:

I am really shocked to know how the guest workers program works for Signal International. Isn't it the company's responsibility to get things straighten out. Are they all part of this game. I am ashamed to say such human beings exist! Why can't the company deal with it and get it straight.What they are afraid of? Loosing slave workers!

Thomas George on Mar 18, 2007 at 11:01:32 said:

Facts about Indian Workers’ stand off at Signal International
I have a brother who is among these workers. The following are the truth of the whole thing based on the updates I kept receiving from my brother.
• Signal Recruitment: A Mississippi based immigration attorney and one Mr. Sachin, a Bombay based travel agent, on behalf of Signal made a fortune (ab)using the H2B Guest Worker Program. Consequently, they advertised in Kerala, an Indian State for Welders and Fitters and many applied for this rare American dream
• Recruiters demand huge sum: But the dream was short lived. Recruiters informed individual applicants that they must pay $ 10,000.00 in various fees and other expenses. In return, they were promised work at $ 21.00 per hour and permanent residence in the US. Based on what I know, most of them didn’t even understand “the words came from the mouth of the American lawyer nor the North Indian agent”. All they knew was that a ‘lot’ of money was required. Many qualified applicants backed off as they did not see sense in investing that kind of money. However, recruiters did not care weather the applicants had the right skills or not, but money only. “Less the skills, more the money” was the slogan. SIGNAL CEO must explain his responsibility for all above actions or if Signal was a part of this scam or a part of this money was paid to him. May be FBI can help in this matter. (Based on rough calculations, the attorney alone collected much more than a Million Dollars from this scam and so is the agent.
• Successful applicants: Those who were willing to pay this huge sum were ‘successful’. Their passports were collected by agent, who now will not return it unless they paid what he demanded. After a long wait and having paid approximately $ 8,000.00, they were told that they may get a 9 month H2B visa to USA and asked them to report to Embassy.
• The Visa: After interview, officer told them that the passports will be sent to them by DHL as usual. Outside embassy, the attorney told them to go home as he collected their passports from Embassy and would be with Sachin, who will make further arrangements..
• More Money again: Sachin actually confiscated the passports and asked employees to report to his Bombay office with much more money. When they questioned, they were told “other people are prepared to pay even more money and they should take it as a favor”. Upon payment, passports would be given to them in Airport and they would be put in an undisclosed flight to US. He refused to give flight information.
• Raising Money: In Kerala, people raise money from ‘Blade’ Bankers at 36% interest for this kind of needs. These applicants raised and paid $ 14,000.00 to $ 20,000.00 through 36% interest loans. That means $ 19,000.00 to $ 25,000.00 is to be paid, if returned now.
• In the US: These people landed in USA in November to stay in poor slave like living conditions. I saw your article saying it cost Signal $ 4,000,000.00, which is $ 13,300.00 per person. A trailer cost only $ 10,000.00, which is sleeping 25 men. I don’t know where the $ 4,000,000.00 is coming from. They are fed food cooked by a Goa-nese cook, who has no clue of what Kerala food is like.
• Signal Stealing: In the name of compulsory food and accommodation, Signal takes $ 1,000.00 tax paid money from each employee each month. They are not allowed to have their own accommodation or food. Their movements are restricted and are treated like real slaves. Further, Signal offered $ 10.00 to $ 12.00 to workers who were found with fewer skills. Those who questioned this action against prevailing wages are fired as a WARNING to others. This is violation of prevailing wages act.
• Supervision: Signal management failed to hire any Indian Supervisors, who can communicate and assign work to these workers. They were put under few Spanish speaking foremen, which made matters complicated. These workers only understand (British) English to an extent. How about Spanish…or thick accented southern English.
• Sachin Visits: Based on complaints from workers Sachin to USA to fix the problem. He told workers in Indian language that if any one complained about money or other conditions, they will be deported. “If you behave it will be better for you” and left.
• Frustrated: Most of them have not even paid back part of their high interest loan. Their families are under harassment from ‘Blade’ Bankers, while these workers are under fear of being locked up by the company as it happened on Friday. If they return to India, the only thing they can do is to end life.
• Attempted Suicide: I think now you can understand the depression and frustration these workers are going through. Hard work, improper food, forced congested accommodation, money stolen, missing family, restricted life, fear and threat of loosing job. My brother told me today that all of them are trembling under threat and fear.
• Family: While law permits H2B visa holders’ family to join them in the US, company did not allow it nor they are free to stay out side company accommodation.
• Mr Dick Marler’s statements: Mr. Dick Marler stated that H2B program is for 5 to10 years. He is trying to fool media and every one. This is a temporary visa for 9 months renewable (may be) just once more. He does not address or explain the actions of his representative recruiters or the money they collected. He must take responsibility for their actions, return the illegal collections made by his local and Indian agents on his behalf, pay prevailing wages, stop illegal deductions, afford basic human rights to them, allow their families to join them, file for their permanent residence etc.

As per Dept of Homeland Security rules, Employer is supposed to expend all filing and transportation expenses of employees. It is a law that filing fee must be in the form of a Company Check only. Is Signal International above all these laws?

Rob on Mar 18, 2007 at 10:31:07 said:

Why are these comapnies allowed to import labor when there are plenty of Americans able to do this work?
Another republican guest worker scam to aid in busting unions, is all this is.

Selene on Mar 14, 2007 at 02:18:35 said:

This horrible event should not come as a surprise to anyone that knows anything about shipyards, construction or the providing of foreign labor. Many of these companies have abused foreign workers for years, often with the help of this same attorney and recruiter.

It's also ridiculous only to say "They had to pay exorbitant amounts to the company, to the recruiter and to the attorney who did the labor certification for them." You've named the company, why are you holding back on naming the attorney and the recruiter? Most people associated with these industries in Louisiana/Mississippi know exactly who the attorney and the recruiter are. They have been running this scam for a number of years. Many people have worked very hard to try to get it to stop, but with very little assistance from other sources, it has been difficult.

While the company is certainly to blame, they are not the only party at fault. The attorney and the recruiter are equally at fault and should have to publicly answer for their actions as well. Ask any of the men at Signal and they will all give you the name of the same attorney and the same recruiter that took all of their money.

The attorney and the recruiter are very well aware that most of these workers have sold everything they have, or have gone heavily into debt that they can never repay, just so that they can pay the ridiculous fee of $20,000 to the attorney and recruiter. Believe me, they laugh about it and get rich doing it.




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