Guest workers fired after protesting slave conditions

1914.jpgHundreds of guest workers from India are protesting conditions in a Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard that immigrant rights activists compare to slavery.

Many of the workers gathered in a church on March 11 in this Gulf Coast port, after their employer, Signal International, threatened to send some of them 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.”

Labor traffickers globalized

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 U.S. government allows companies to recruit workers outside the country and bring them here under contract. The visas are good for 10 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. Workers also say they were promised that Signal would refund the money.

“I had to pay $14,000,” says 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 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 put the Indian guest workers to work in the yard alongside U.S. 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 said they were unqualified. Chandler says the company recruiter in India determined the workers knew their jobs during the process of hiring them.

The new ‘company town’

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 says 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.”

Fired for meeting

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.”

Signal International President Dick Marler told the Mississippi Press that although workers had been employed since December, the company only discovered recently that they had no skills. Federal law required the company to fire them, he asserted.

Signal did not return calls for this story, but a statement on the company web site says the workers “receive the same pay and are taxed the same as all other Signal craft personnel. Workers from India have a reputation for being pleasant and hard-working.” It quotes Marler, who says, “We are fortunate the U.S. government has such a program that allows us to supplement our workforce during a time of emergency created by hurricanes.”

Deportations, company lock-up

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 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.”

Company security guards locked the fired workers in what they call the TV room, and wouldn’t let them leave.

Their co-workers 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.

DANGER: Guest worker programs

“We’ve learned about case after case of workers in Mississippi, Louisiana and all along the gulf in these conditions,” Chandler says. “There are thousands of guest workers who have been brought in since Katrina and subjected to this same treatment. Mexican guest workers in Amelia, La., 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 says. “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.

David Bacon, labor journalist and photographer, is the author of “The Children of NAFTA” and “Communities Without Borders,” a photodocumentary on transnational communities.