Also in the news…

Other articles of interest about guest workers:

Guest workers labor here to support families back home

Senate votes to end harmful guest worker program – federal immigration laws to be applied to the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

H2B stalemate vexes businesses

Guest workers launch signature drive for federally mandated residency status

Ungrateful states scare off immigrants – “Keep Out” or “Help Wanted”?

Records show foreign students who come to America to work still owed pay – “…wound up cheated out of wages and overtime pay, working jobs that violated child labor laws or docked pay to cover room and board.”

 

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Blog: “David v. Signal’s Dickensian tale”

http://www.folo.us/2008/04/13/david-v-signals-dickensian-tale/

David v. Signal’s Dickensian tale

April 13th, 2008 – by lotus · No Comments

Recently dmwriter alerted me to a new class-action lawsuit in New Orleans’ federal court, David v. Signal, whose allegations read like a 19th-century novel.

Brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other attorneys for over 500 Indian citizens recruited in either their home country or the United Arab Emirates to work at Signal International LLC’s oil-rig yards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Orange, Texas, the suit alleges forced labor, assault and battery, fraud, and a number of related abuses. The defendants are Signal and several individuals and firms supplying its recruiting, legal, and labor-brokerage needs. The New York Times‘ report on the suit is here, but the 82-page complaint lays out an overview that I paraphrase:

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita depleted Signal’s workforce in Mississippi and Texas, in 2006 its recruiters set up shop in India and the UAE. Lured by these recruiters’ lying promises of legal, permanent work-based immigration to the US for themselves and their families, the men left stable jobs, plunged their families into debt, liquidated their life savings, and sold their family homes and other possessions to pay Signal’s recruitment, immigration processing, and travel fees (up to $20,000 apiece).

Trafficked into the US via the H-2B guestworker program (which does not lead to the green cards they were promised), they became forced labor — something between indentured servants and slaves — as welders and fitters at Signal’s Pascagoula and Orange yards.

When they arrived, Signal stuffed them into guarded, overcrowded, isolated labor camps, charging them $200 for their tool kits and $35 a day for meals from unhygienic kitchens that often made them sick, lying to them about their visa status, threatening them with deportation, and “generally perpetrat[ing] a campaign of psychological abuse, coercion, and fraud designed to render Plaintiffs and other class members afraid, intimidated, and unable to leave Signal’s employ.”

On March 9, 2007, the company’s private security guards tried to forcibly deport five of the men in retaliation for speaking out against conditions in the Pascagoula camp. “Terrified by the threat of imminent deportation and the security guards pursuing him,” one of the five attempted suicide and had to be taken to a local hospital. Amid the chaos, another hid and escaped the camp. Then the guards forced the other three into a locked, guarded room, refusing them water or bathroom access for hours. Finally, a Pascagoula police officer inside and gathering local media and residents outside the camp pressured Signal into releasing the men.

Seeing or quickly hearing of this, the remaining workers in Mississippi and Texas, now “deeply fearful, isolated, disoriented, and unfamiliar with their rights under United States law, felt compelled to continue working for Signal.” 

But last month, they sued:

Plaintiffs assert class action claims against Defendants arising from violations of their rights under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (“TVPA”); the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”); the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. § 1981); the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1985); collective action claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA); and claims for damages arising from fraud/negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract. Plaintiffs Sabulal Vijayan, Jacob Joseph Kadakkarappally, Kuldeep Singh, Krishan Kumar, and Thanasekar Chellappan also bring individual claims arising from the retaliation in violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. § 1981); the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. § 1985), false imprisonment, assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The Indian news site livemint.com reports:

Now Signal said it was a mistake and blamed third-party recruiters. “Both Signal and our employees were misled,” said a written statement from president and CEO Richard Marler. “We are going to stand by our workers and do what we can to help them get justice. The recruiters’ abuses cannot be tolerated.” …

Tell you what: CEO Marler’s it’s-all-the-recruiters’-doing diverges so wildly from the plaintiffs’ account of what happened to them, both abroad and (especially) in the US, it sounds as if any jury this case reaches can expect to weigh unusually mutually-exclusive stories. 

Whatever develops, it’s sure to be a fascinating case to follow. Just don’t expect the laughs U.S. v. Scruggs has supplied.

NDTV: Indian Workers from Mississippi Seek UN Help

http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/story.aspx?id=NEWEN20080046355&ch=4/9/2008%2012:43:00%20PM

Indian workers from Mississippi seek UN help

Frustrated with the uncaring response from the US and Indian governments, about a dozen Indian guest workers on Tuesday knocked the door of the United Nations for justice.

Claiming to represent over a 100 Indian guest workers, who had last month revolted against their US employer for allegedly putting them under slave like conditions, the workers met Craig Mokhabir; Deputy Director, New York Office of High Commission for Human Rights.

Mokhabir, who patiently listened to the woes of the workers for nearly half an hour and appeared to be sympathetic with the plight of these workers, however, failed to give any concrete assurances to these pleading Indian workers, who now face an uncertain future.

We told him about all our issues. He said it is definitely a human rights violation that has occurred here. He said he would do the maximum, he can do in his capacity, said Justin Poulse, one of these workers, who were hired by a US company, Signal International in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina to work at a Mississippi dock.

Having quit the job in protest against what they claim as the slave like treatment to them, these workers have filed a class action law suit against their US employer. With their legal status in doubt, these workers told NDTV.com they would stay in the US to fight for justice and tell the world that workers are still being treated like slave in a country like this.

We hope that the UN would help us get justice, said Rajan P, one of these workers after they met Mokhabir. Speaking in Malayalam, through an interpretator, Poulse and his other colleagues said they were deeply disheartened by the poor response from the Indian Government, in particular Indian Embassy in Washington, and the US Government so far.

We have been unsuccessfully crying aloud for justice so far, said Jashy Mathai. He said that all of the about 100 workers who have been running the campaign have put in all their money they had earned here to fight out for the cause.

Not yet decided, what their next course of action would be, Mathai said: Our decision is that we would continue our satya-graha until we get justice. From now, he said the workers would split themselves to continue with their agitation in New York, Washington and New Orleans.

In all more than 500 Indian guest workers were hired by the Signal International to work in the US. The workers claim that they were promised green card and paid $20,000 for this. On arrival in the US, the workers claimed, that were cheated on this account and further they were mistreated and put under slave like conditions.

The US company has denied any mistreatment, but has decide to temporarily stop recruitment of workers in India and initiate action against the recruitment companies in both India and the US, who hired there workers on their behalf.

Times of India: Mississippi mess: Indian shipyard workers now turn to UN

 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/World/USA/Mississippi_mess_Indian_shipyard_workers_now_turn_to_UN/articleshow/2937334.cms

Mississippi mess: Indian shipyard workers now turn to UN
9 Apr 2008, 1301 hrs IST,PTI

NEW YORK: Accusing the Indian government of “abandoning” them to their fate, Indian shipyard workers from Mississippi who claim to be victims of modern day slavery have now sought the help of the United Nations.

The workers, who claimed they were tricked into coming to the US under the H2-B guest workers programme on a false promise of permanent residency and were forced to live under inhuman conditions, met the Deputy Director of New York office of High Commissioner for Human Rights Craig G Mokhiber here.

After the 45-minute meeting, Saket Soni, who led the Indians, said Mokhiber had agreed that their alleged ill-treatment constituted violation of international and humanitarian laws.

Mokhiber, however, did not comment on the meeting.

Signal International had said it had fired the recruiter after it learnt of its misconduct but denied the workers’ charges that they were being treated as slaves as “baseless and unfounded”.

Seventeen workers had come to New York to meet with the UN official. They said the official discussed with them the various courses open to them in the United Nations.

Though their fate remains uncertain, the workers who met Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen last month after a 1,500-km march from New Orleans and demanded a CBI probe, said they would not leave the country without getting justice for themselves and others placed in the same condition.

They, however, regretted the Indian government’s apathy.

“We spent three hours relating our tales to the Indian Ambassador and other embassy officials in Washington and were ultimately told that they could act only within the protocol,” a worker said, asserting they only wanted the Indian and US governments to work together to find a solution.

People’s World Weekly: Modern-day slavery exposed by ‘guest’ workers

http://www.pww.org/article/view/12872/

Modern-day slavery exposed by ‘guest’ workers

 

Daniel Castellanos was lured from his native city of Lima, Peru, all the way to the U.S. Gulf Coast where, he was told, a construction job and a green card would be waiting for him. All he had to do to land the full-time, $11-an-hour job was pay $5,000 to a recruiter in Peru.

He figured this was his chance — as a worker with legal status in the U.S. he could work hard and send money back to his poverty-stricken family in Peru.

“They promised us construction work but made us do cleaning in hotels,” he said. Instead of working a full 40-hour week at $11 an hour, Castellanos, along with 80 Panamanians, 100 Bolivians and 70 Dominicans, was paid $6 an hour for a 25-hour week doing the dirty work in New Orleans luxury hotels. Those same hotels, meanwhile, told thousands of African Americans in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged city that no work was available for them.

“With that wage, it was impossible for me to pay back the debt to the recruiter, much less send any money back home,” Castellanos said.

Sabul Vijayan was in deep trouble recently. He and 23 fellow “guest workers” from India were jammed into a small dormitory in an aluminum shack surrounded by barbed wire, in a remote corner of the Signal International Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss.

Vijayan and 100 others were lured from their their home state of Kerala, India, all the way to Mississippi where, they were told, high-paying jobs and permanent residency status were waiting for them. The icing on the cake was that their families could join them in eight months, they were told. Signal International agents in India charged them as much as $20,000 apiece for the trip to America.

They were forced to pay almost half of their much lower than promised wages for “rent” in the filthy, cramped quarters. Most of the rest of their wages were withheld as payment against their $20,000 debt, and their families were not allowed to join them. They became virtual prisoners because the company took away their passports and visas.

When they complained about either their living or working conditions, company supervisors threatened them with firing, which, for a “guest worker” with an H-2B visa, means automatic deportation.

Vijayan said a supervisor told him, “We know what it’s like in India — you don’t deserve better.”

Determined to break the chains of their modern-day slavery, Vijayan and three other Indian welders at the shipyard got together with Castellanos and took these stories to Capitol Hill April 1, where they briefed lawmakers on the abusive guest worker system in the United States. The AFL-CIO paid their way. The testimony came just as the government is being petitioned by other unscrupulous employers to approve 65,000 additional H-2B visa applications.

Labor unions have noted that H2-B visa requests are supposed to be granted only when a company can prove that it is impossible to fill a position with a worker already in the country. Congress defeated the Bush administration’s immigration “reform” plan last year. That plan had called for a stepped up guest worker program, describing it as a “path to citizenship.”

Defeated in Congress, the Bush administration went ahead with de-facto implementation of its plan by approving more and more big business requests for H-2B visa workers.

“H-2B is a system of slavery,” Vijayan says.

Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice Project, joined the workers in their visits to lawmakers. “The H-2B visa system deprives the workers of their rights,” Bauer said, “binds them only to the employer they are placed with — they can’t switch jobs and retain the visa — and deprives them of legal representation to better their lot, unless they can find a pro-bono public interest attorney.”

In addition to paying their travel costs to Washington, the AFL-CIO helped with getting the workers legal representation. The Indian workers have filed suit against Signal International, accusing the company of human trafficking. Castellanos is likewise suing the Decatur Hotel in New Orleans.

The efforts of the victimized workers appear to be paying off. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said, earlier this month that he supports the legal actions they have taken and that it “underscores the U.S. guest worker program is in serious need of reform.” Miller, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said he cannot support the H-2B visa program until the abuses end and “we must insist the program pay workers the prevailing wage. We cannot allow the program to drive down wages in America.”

jwojcik@pww.org

 

Blog: “Slavery in the land of the free”

http://www.socialistworker.org/2008-1/669/669_08_Slavery.shtml

Slavery in the land of the free

April 11, 2008 | Pages 8 and 9

IN TOMATO fields in Immokalee, Fla., in a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., in the sweatshops of Los Angeles, immigrant workers endure demeaning and dangerous conditions under the threat of physical violence or other coercion. ELIZABETH SCHULTE exposes the truth about modern-day slavery. 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

JOSÉ VASQUEZ couldn’t stand any more.On November 19, he and two other workers escaped through a ventilation hatch in the box trailer where they had been locked up for the night. For more than a year, the three immigrants and a dozen more were forced to work for the Navarrete family picking tomatoes in Immokalee, Fla.

They were made to pay $20 for “housing”–a locked van where they had to defecate in the corner–as well as $50 a week for food and $5 to take a shower in the backyard with a garden hose.

Earning just 45 cents for every bucket of tomatoes they picked in the blistering Florida sun for some 12 hours a day, the men were in perpetual debt to their captors. And the fear of deportation made defying the men who held them seem even more impossible. Any identifying documents they once had were locked away.

When investigators finally arrived a week later, they found the other workers bloody, bruised and beaten–a regular state of affairs, according to the workers. Mariano Lucas, one of the workers who escaped, told investigators he tried to take a day off a few weeks previously, and was beaten until he bled. One man had badly swollen wrists from being chained with his hands behind his back every night.

What else to readFor more information on the fight of Immokalee farmworkers and to sign their petition demanding justice, go to Coalition of Immokalee Workers Web site. The struggle of the Signal workers in Pascagoula is documented at the New Orleans Center for Racial Justice Web site, along with the steps they have taken to protest their conditions.The California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery Task Force’s report, “Human Trafficking in California,” is available on the Internet. Also, see “Hidden Slaves: Forced Labor in the United States” by the Human Rights Center at the University of California-Berkeley and Free the Slaves. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Close to Slavery: Guest-worker Programs in the U.S.” is likewise available at the group’s Web site.

John Bowe’s book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy is a journalistic account slavery in Immokalee and elsewhere. For an in-depth history of immigration in the U.S. and the struggle of immigrant workers, see No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, by Justin Akers Chacón and Mike Davis.

  

There’s only one way to describe this abuse, according to Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy: “Slavery, plain and simple.”No one disputes that slavery–abolished 150 years ago in the U.S.–is one of the ugliest chapters in American history. Yet just under the surface of the modern-day image of the U.S. as a beacon of democracy is an ugly secret: that slavery still thrives for thousands of workers.

Under the modern slave system, workers aren’t bought and sold on the open market, as they once were in the U.S. South–but rather they were smuggled into the country and forced to work, all just beneath the radar of government officials and the public.

 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

LAST YEAR’S incident at Immokalee marked the seventh farm labor operation to be prosecuted for servitude in Florida–involving well over 1,000 workers and more than a dozen employers–in the past decade.In 2004, for example, Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery and firearms charges. They threatened the 700 farmworkers under their control with death if they tried to leave, and pistol-whipped passenger van service drivers who gave rides to farmworkers leaving the area.

By and large, though, it’s these small-time extortionists who are punished for modern-day slavery in America–while the big corporations who ultimately profit from slave-like labor stand above the fray.

And profit they do. “The food sector (food, groceries, food processing, and restaurant businesses together) is worth about a trillion dollars a year in the U.S. and is second only to pharmaceuticals in profitability,” writes journalist John Bowe in his book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.

“Considering that the American public gives some $47 billion per year in direct subsidies to agricultural producers and billions more in tax breaks, research allocations to university, marketing initiatives…it is blind idiocy or willful deceit to say the money just isn’t there.”

Through activism on the part of farmworkers themselves and a fierce and creative public boycott campaign, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) last year forced McDonald’s, the world’s biggest restaurant chain, and Yum!, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, to pay pickers another penny per pound of tomatoes.

Today, Burger King, which also buys its tomatoes in Immokalee, is refusing to follow suit. Burger King’s intransigence was backed up by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which last year threatened a $100,000 fine for any grower who agrees to an extra penny per pound for pickers’ wages.

As Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, pointed out in the New York Times, “Telling Burger King to pay an extra penny for tomatoes and provide a decent wage to migrant workers would hardly bankrupt the company. Indeed, it would cost Burger King only $250,000 a year…

“In 2006, the bonuses of the top 12 Goldman Sachs executives exceeded $200 million–more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year.”

The fast-food giant’s excuse? The CIW “has gone after us because we are a known brand,” complained Burger King vice president Steve Grover. “At the end of the day, we don’t employ the farmworkers, so how can we pay them?”

This is how the big guys keep their hands clean of the dirty work of paying sub-minimum wages–and enslaving other human beings.

 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IN SOME cases, slave-like conditions are perfectly legal, since labor laws almost always favor the employer, particularly in the agricultural industry.Speaking of the U.S. bracero program from 1942 to 1964, under which millions of Mexican workers were imported and contracted out to U.S. growers and ranchers, even the U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee Williams, described it as a system of “legalized slavery.”

When the program was shut down, migrant workers could still be brought into the U.S. under the H-2 program, or the guest-worker system–under which workers are only provided with a visa when they have an employer, therefore keeping them at the mercy of emloyers.

As a 2007 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Close to Slavery: Guest Worker Programs in the U.S., states, “Under the current system, called the H-2 program, employers brought about 121,000 guest workers into the U.S. in 2005–approximately 32,000 for agricultural work and another 89,000 for jobs in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction and other non-agricultural industries.

“These workers, though, are not treated like ‘guests.’ Rather, they are systematically exploited and abused. Unlike U.S. citizens, guest workers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market–the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated. Instead, they are bound to the employers who ‘import’ them. If guest workers complain about abuses, they face deportation, blacklisting or other retaliation.”

When their work visas expire, H-2 employees must leave the U.S.–making them, in the words of the SPLC, “the disposable workers of the U.S. economy.”

Often, workers are recruited overseas, with recruiters’ fees ranging anywhere from $500 to $10,000 for travel visas and other costs. Add to this exorbitant interest rates, sometimes as high as 20 percent a month, and it’s obvious that workers are arriving in the U.S. with debts they can’t possibly pay off with jobs that pay very little, typically less than the federal minimum wage.

In some cases, recruiters threaten to harm to the families of the workers if payments are missed. The workers are trapped in a terrifying downward spiral.

Nelson Ramirez, a forestry worker from Guatemala, described to the SPLC what happened when he signed up to work for Eller and Sons Trees in 2001. A labor recruiter required that his wife sign a paper agreeing to be responsible if he were to break his contract.

“I didn’t understand exactly what this threat meant, but knew that my wife would have to sign if I was going to get the visa,” Ramirez said. “The work was very hard, but I worried about leaving, because my wife signed this form to get me the job.”

Abuse of workers–including human trafficking and slavery conditions–have been reported in a surprising variety of jobs. Among the cases documented in a 2007 report from the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery (CA ACTS) Task Force were 48 Thai welders hired through Kota Manpower of Thailand and Los Angeles and forced live in squalor, working for little or no pay.

In September 2004, Nena Jimeno Ruiz was lured to LA from the Philippines under false pretenses, forced to work 18-hour days at the home of an executive at Sony Pictures, sleep on a dog bed and threatened with never seeing her family again if she complained.

In 2001, Victoria Island Farms settled a civil lawsuit that resulted in the payment of back wages to workers who were forced to harvest asparagus in substandard conditions for virtually no pay. Hired by a farm labor contractor, the workers, recruited mostly from Mexico, were powerless to stop huge deductions for transportation and other “debts” that the employer took from their weekly paychecks.

The U.S. State Department estimates that approximately 80 percent of people trafficked from other countries are women and girls, and up to 50 percent are minors. Members of “Lideres Campesinas,” an agricultural worker women’s organization based in Pomona, Calif., told the CA ACTS Task Force that foremen often prey on immigrant women, abuse them and sexually assault them. The women say that if they complained, they would be deported, and their families in their home countries would be victimized.

Immigrants are the most vulnerable to these attacks on their basic freedoms–and the least protected by the U.S. government.

Typically, law enforcement officials are charged with protecting the rights of those being abused–and they are the least capable of handling the job. On the contrary, they are more likely to be viewed–for good reason–as the enemies of undocumented immigrants, making them the last people workers would seek out for help.

In the end, undocumented workers are the ones treated like criminals.

The U.S. government is ill-equipped and apparently uninterested in seeking out these all-too-common incidents of abuse. At best, it turns the other way when abuses occur; more often, it is part of the problem, as the threat of deportation hangs heavy over the heads of workers too afraid to seek help.

If we are going to abolish modern-day slavery, we have to look to the struggles from below that won workers’ rights in the past.

The Immokalee workers are modeling their struggle against slavery in the Florida fields on the first abolitionist movement, with a national petition drive marking the bicentennial of the U.S. ban on importing slaves and a vow to stop modern-day slavery.

And in Pascagoula, 100 immigrant guest workers from India took a page from the civil rights movement when they walked out over the slave-like conditions at a Signal International shipyard on March 6–holding signs the read “I Am a Man” like those carried by striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968.

“We need to change this system to one that helps the employees who are suffering, not the employers,” said Signal worker Sabulal Vijayan.

Sify News: US govt ‘closely following’ Indian workers’ case

http://sify.com/news/fullstory.php?id=14647412

US govt ‘closely following’ Indian workers’ case

Friday, 11 April , 2008, 11:12
 
Washington: The US State Department says it is “closely following” the case of some 100 Indian workers who have alleged that they were lured to come to the US by false promises of permanent jobs.”We have referred the workers’ complaints to the appropriate government agencies,” the department stated in response to a question about if it was involved with or assisting protesting workers from India and if there had been any diplomatic communication on the matter.

The workers have alleged that they came to work for a Mississippi-based firm, Signal International, on a 10-month work visa after allegedly paying $20,000 to a contracted job recruiter.

“While we are following this matter closely, the Department of State does not comment on specific visa cases, nor can we

take a position in a legal dispute between an employer and an employee,” it said, adding: “We have referred the workers’ complaints to the appropriate government agencies”.

The Indian workers had late last month taken their protest to the White House where they raised slogans and tore up photocopies of their H-2B visas in a symbolic rejection of the guest worker programme.

American NGO groups backing the workers argue that unless the H-2B programme is overhauled, companies like Signal International will exploit foreign workers and subject them to conditions of bonded labour – a charge that has been denied by the Mississippi firm.

Coming to Washington, after a nine-day satyagraha, or “journey for justice” from New Orleans, the workers had also staged a march to the Indian Embassy after a protest rally at nearby Dupont Circle.

During a three-hour-meeting with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen, they demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into their case. Sen gave the workers a patient hearing and promised to take up their grievances but only though appropriate and established channels.