Rebelling against alleged "slave treatment," some 100 workers recruited from India staged a dramatic protest at a Mississippi shipyard Thursday, claiming they had been tricked into coming to the United States.
The workers, brought from India to work as welders and pipe-fitters at Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula, hurled their hard hats at company gates and demanded a federal investigation.
The workers claim they were defrauded by a Signal International recruiter in India who promised them green cards and permanent residency in the U.S. in exchange for a $20,000 fee. The workers allege that they instead received 10-month work visas, which was only enough time for them to pay off their recruitment fees.
The workers also claim that Signal forced them to live in substandard housing, with 24 men crammed into a small room. The men say Signal charged them more than $1,000 a month to live in company housing.
"For more than one year, hundreds of Indian workers at Signal International have been living like slaves," said former Signal worker Sabulal Vijayan. "Today the workers are coming out to declare their freedom. This trafficking needs to end."
The workers have reported their situation to the U.S. Department of Justice and are calling for Signal International to be prosecuted on human trafficking charges.
Signal International strongly denied the workers' allegations. The company released a statement saying, "Unfortunately, a few of the workers whom Signal had sponsored for H2B visas and recruited have made baseless and unfounded allegations against Signal concerning their employment and living conditions." According to the statement, "The vast majority of the workers whom Signal recruited has been satisfied with the employment and living conditions at Signal."
Signal called its housing complex "state of the art" and said government inspections have "found that Signal's practices and facilities are fully compliant with the law."
The Mississippi Gulf Coast has faced a severe labor shortage in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and many companies have replenished their workforce with overseas labor brought in under a guest worker plan. Human rights groups, however, charge that many foreign workers have been exploited by their employers.
"The U.S. State Department calls it 'a repulsive crime' when recruiters and employers in other parts of the world bind guest workers with crushing debts and threats of deportation," said Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. "This is precisely what is happening on the Gulf Coast."