Indian Workers Decry Recruitment Tactics
By Pamela Constable
Vijay Kumar was working as a contract welder in the sweltering United Arab Emirates two years ago, far from his wife and family in southern India, when he spotted an advertisement offering welders and pipe fitters "permanent lifetime settlement in the USA for self and family."
Kumar answered the ad to find that workers were being recruited to rebuild oil rigs in Mississippi and Texas destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He returned to India, signed a contract and paid a recruiter $20,000 to travel to the United States. He told his wife, who had just given birth to a son, that he would send for them as soon as he could.
"I sell my house, my wife sell her jewels, we borrow money from friends. We dream of living in America together," Kumar, 34, said yesterday. He stood outside the U.S. Justice Department during a protest with several dozen other Indian workers, all of whom have been staging a hunger strike in Washington for weeks.
When about 500 Indian recruits reached Mississippi in the fall of 2006, Kumar and the others said, they found that they had been deceived. Their new employer, Signal International Corp., had hired them as temporary "guest" workers with 10-month H2B visas. There was no possibility of obtaining permanent residency for themselves, let alone their families back home. Signal denies that it knew the workers had been promised U.S. residency.
With support from the AFL-CIO, law firms and advocacy groups, more than 100 of the recruited Indians have filed a federal lawsuit in Louisiana against Signal and several recruiting agents, under a federal law that prohibits "human trafficking" by fraud or force for labor or services.
The group also asked for a Justice Department investigation and for permission to remain in the United States, even though they are no longer employed here, while their court case is pending. Some of the workers, who quit Signal in March and made their way to Washington, have staged an intermittent hunger strike outside the Embassy of India to draw attention to their case. Eighteen members of Congress have signed a letter to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey on their behalf.
In addition to the hiring process, the workers complained about their treatment in the United States. They said they were squeezed into crowded bunk rooms with too few toilets, given bad food and little freedom to leave the work site and had to labor in hot and dirty conditions, cleaning and repairing the damaged oil rigs.
"None of the promises were kept," said Shivan Raghavan, 45, another Indian worker at yesterday's protest, who said he paid the recruiter an additional $4,500 to send later for his wife and two children. "The work was dirty and dangerous. There was little air, and it was hard to breathe. When we complained, we were told we could be deported.
"We were cheated, and we want justice," he said.
Signal International officials said yesterday that they had been shocked to learn that recruiters had lured the foreign workers with false offers of permanent immigration, and that Signal had played no part in that process. They also said the living arrangements they offered at their U.S. operations were not only of good quality but also tailored to the needs and tastes of South Asian immigrant workers.
"The company was incredibly angry when we found the recruiters had misled people and charged them outrageous fees to come over. Signal feels betrayed by the recruiters, and to an extent betrayed by the workers for making false allegations," said Erin Casey Hangartner, counsel for Signal, in a telephone interview from Mississippi.
She said she did not know whether Signal officials knew of the deceptive advertisements, only that "we did not fully understand the green card process. We acted in good faith at every turn." She also said Signal has entered the Indians' lawsuit as a plaintiff, accusing several recruiters in India and the United States of hiring workers under fraudulent conditions.
Attempts were made to reach lawyers at an immigration law firm in New Orleans that allegedly acted as a central conduit in the recruitments. An assistant at the firm said the lawyers would have no public comment. Documents filed in the federal lawsuit show numerous large checks from recruiters in India paid to the firm, plus receipts. Some are marked, "H2B visa and employment based permanent residence visas for USA."
Hangartner defended Signal's treatment of the workers, saying the company built them living quarters with Internet access, billiard tables, laundry service, meals provided by an Indian caterer and free shuttles to the nearest towns. She said that the protesting workers received the same pay and benefits as the others and that a number of Indian immigrants are still happily employed there.
According to labor and political groups helping the Indians, the case was an important example of illegal human trafficking, abetted by the complex rules governing the U.S. guest worker program and exacerbated by the urgent and chaotic conditions that characterized the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"These workers came to help rebuild the Gulf, and on arrival their nightmare began," Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ill.) said at yesterday's protest. "We recognize that modern-day slavery exists, but the U.S. Congress has passed laws that protect the victims. We have faith in the U.S. system of justice, and we believe these workers should place their faith in the U.S. system of justice, too."