Indian workers recruited for post-hurricane jobs demand visa program changes

Published 9:05 pm Friday, March 28, 2008

Indian workers who say they were lured by false promises into moving to the Gulf Coast to fill a labor shortage after Hurricane Katrina demanded Thursday that their country help stop what they call human trafficking.

The nearly 100 workers, who have sued their U.S. employer, met with Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen after holding a rally. They said after the meeting that he appeared to take their complaints seriously, but that they were not satisfied.

“What we need is action, not just symbolic assurances,” said one of the workers, Rajan Pazhambalakode.

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They say that more than 500 Indian nationals paid recruiters $20,000 each after they were promised permanent U.S. residency to work as welders and pipefitters for Signal International, an oil rig construction and repair company.

Instead, they said, they received 10-month guest-worker visas and were forced into inhumane living conditions at company facilities in Pascagoula, Miss. and Orange, Texas.

They filed a federal lawsuit against Signal this month and organized protests in several cities before traveling to Washington. They want the companies involved to be barred from participating in visa programs and are pressing discussions between the U.S. and Indian governments on improving those programs.

Signal has denied allegations that it mistreated workers. The company said Thursday it will stop hiring guest workers until more safeguards are in place to prevent recruiting abuses.

Richard Marler, Signal’s president and chief executive, said he was shocked to learn that foreign workers allegedly were charged thousands of dollars by recruiters. He said Signal has severed its contract with recruiter Global Resources and its principals and plans to sue the firm.

Marler said 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.

Marler said about 100 Indian workers who have stayed at Signal are happy with their jobs.