Indian workers plan rally at Department of Justice

Published 4:48 pm Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sony Sulekha rallied Wednesday outside the Justice Department with fellow Indian workers who claim to be victims of human trafficking, holding up a photo of his wife and daughter. He hasn’t seen either one since 2006.

Sulekha, a 37-year-old welder from the Indian state of Kerala, said he sold his home and paid thousands of dollars to recruiters for promises of permanent U.S. residency and employment at a Mississippi company. Instead, he said he ended up with just a temporary work visa and cramped living conditions.

“I came here to live with my family and to have a prosperous life,” he said. “When we raised our voices they told us to keep quiet.”

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He and 50 other Indian laborers chanted slogans, sang songs and held up enlarged checks they wrote out to recruiters. Organizers said other rallies and meetings with elected officials were also being held Wednesday in 10 cities amid calls to reform U.S. guest worker programs.

The welders and pipefitters are suing recruiting firms and their former Pascagoula, Miss.-based employer, Signal International.

They say more than 500 Indian nationals paid recruiters $20,000 each after they were promised permanent U.S. residency to work for Signal — an oil rig construction and repair company. They arrived in late 2006 and early 2007.

Instead, they claim they received 10-month guest-worker visas and were forced into inhumane living conditions in Mississippi and Texas. Workers said they paid Signal more than $1,000 a month to live in small trailers housing 24 men each, sharing a single toilet. They also say the company cracked down on their organizing efforts with armed guards and deportation threats.

“When we go to work they treat us like slaves,” said Baiju Paul, 31, who came here as a fitter for Signal. “We want justice for everything. We want to punish the recruiters, lawyers and the company. And we need to change the rules of the guest worker program.”

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Indian politicians have sided with the workers, along with dozens of backers from labor, religious and civil rights groups.

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal civil rights investigation of the company.

Signal says that if the recruiters made false promises, they were acting on their own. The company also says the trailers met all legal standards and extra facilities were built following workers’ complaints.

Most of the workers no longer have legal immigration status in the United States because temporary work visas expired, leaving most to rely on friends or supporters to get by.

Workers are asking the Justice Department to grant them “continued presence” status as victims of human trafficking to stay in the U.S. legally while the government investigates their claims.

They also called for the companies involved to be barred from visa programs and for the U.S. and Indian governments to discuss the issue.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and 17 other members of Congress sent a letter sponsored by Kucinich to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey last week appealing for government help for the workers.

Jamie Hais, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said officials plan to respond to the letter and said the civil rights office will meet workers’ representatives next week.

Signal is suing Beaumont, Miss.-based Global Resources and other recruiters of workers from India. In the lawsuit filed last month in Louisiana, Signal claims it was unaware of the alleged green card promises the recruiters made to workers before their arrival.

Erin Casey Hangartner, a Signal attorney, said recruiters also told the company that workers would pay between $2,000 and $4,000 for processing and travel fees. She said when Signal learned about the much higher rates workers had paid, it asked recruiters to return the money. She said Signal severed its contract with Global Resources in November 2006.

Signal denies claims that it mistreated workers.

“Our position has been and always will be that these are absolutely baseless allegations,” Hangartner said.

Hangartner noted more than 100 Indian workers still work at the Pascagoula, Miss., site, some in supervisory posts.

Stephen H. Kupperman, an attorney for Global Resources, said the firm “didn’t mislead anyone” in India or in the U.S.

“I know that my client is looking forward to meeting eventually with the plaintiffs and their lawyers and (discuss) how Signal has mislead them along with the U.S. and Indian governments,” he said.