Over a hundred Indian workers at a shipyard in a small American town on the Gulf of Mexico lodged a dramatic protest against inhuman living and working conditions on Thursday, singing “We Shall Overcome”, and tossing their hard hats in the air.
The workers, hired from India in 2006 to tide over a labour shortage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that killed over 1,800 on the Gulf coast in August 2005, said they were made to live “like pigs in a cage” in a “work camp” run by their employer, marine fabrication company Signal International, in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
The workers said an earlier attempt at protest had been ruthlessly muzzled, prompting a worker to attempt suicide. The worker had been sacked and police had been called in to control the situation. The protesters said they had been lured with promises of permanent US residency into a “human trafficking ring” run by Signal International.
Signal issued a statement denying the charges. But it said 500 workers were recruited from India two years ago, after Katrina. The company said it had sponsored the workers for H2B visas.
Hindustan Times spoke to Sabulal Vijayan, the 40-year-old pipe-fitter who had been fired for organising the workers on the previous occasion.
He accused Signal of reducing the workers’ already meagre pay by almost a third, and described the conditions in which the Indians stayed at the “camp”.
“Initially, we were paid $18 an hour and it was later reduced to 13,” Vijayan said.
“Twenty-four of us stayed in one cramped dormitory that included our beds, showers and water coolers. All of us had paid between Rs 6 lakh and Rs 10 lakh to a Mumbai-based recruiter to get to the US. We were all promised green cards,” he added.
WLOX-TV, a local TV channel, which covered the protest widely, reported that many workers had taken huge loans to raise the amount, and now felt trapped. The channel quoted Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, who served as an interpreter for the workers at a press conference.
The channel quoted Vijayan as saying: “I slit my wrists to kill myself (on the earlier occasion). There was no other option for me. Signal was retaliating against me.”
The workers were “trapped between an ocean of debt at home and constant threats of deportation from our bosses in Mississippi”, the channel quoted Vijayan as saying.
Soni, 30, told Hindustan Times: “We will now demand that the US government and the Department of Justice prosecute the company and recruiters for the crime of human trafficking.” He added that Signal International was currently recruiting again in India, but this could not be independently verified.
Soni said: “We will explore our legal options. But we have already begun a campaign for prosecution of the company.”
Signal said it had spent over $7 million to construct state-of-the-art housing complexes for the workers, and was paying them “greater wages than that they could earn in their home country”.
The company said facilities and labour practices had been inspected and approved by both the US Department of Labour and the Federal Immigration and Customs Division.