Indian dock workers protest in US; embassy sending teamMarch 11th, 2008 - 9:08 pm ICT by admin
By Parveen Chopra
New York, March 11 (IANS) Some of the 500 Indian dock workers who have filed a lawsuit accusing their US employer and recruiters of human trafficking held a rally in New Orleans, even as the Indian embassy in Washington has decided to send a fact-finding team to the city in Louisiana. The class action suit filed last Friday in a New Orleans court accuses Signal International, a marine fabrication company with shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Orange, Texas, as well as Indian recruiter, Dewan Consultants, and the New Orleans immigration lawyer, Malvern Burnett, of forced labour, trafficking, fraud and civil rights violations.
After marching in the New Orleans streets Monday, the group of over 100 workers circulated copies of the lawsuit in the neighbourhood where Burnett’s law offices are located.
The office was locked, and Burnett, who repeatedly promised the workers green cards and permanent residency in exchange for $20,000, called to cancel an appointment several workers had made for that afternoon, a press statement said.
Meanwhile, the Indian embassy deputed Alok Pandey, first secretary (consular) in Washington and K.P. Pillai, consul, from the Houston consulate, to go to New Orleans Tuesday “to ascertain facts”.
“Based on their findings, we will take whatever action is needed to safeguard the legitimate interests of our citizens,” an embassy spokesman said.
S.M. Gavai, consul general heading the Houston mission that serves Mississippi and Louisiana, told IANS: “We are in touch with the NGOs and lawyers consulting the workers, and are sending a team on a fact finding mission. We will keep the government of India informed.”
Gavai said Signal was not returning calls from the consulate.
When contacted by IANS, a Signal spokesperson said they had nothing more to say beyond what was in their statement released earlier, which denied the workers’ allegations.
Nearly 100 workers escaped from the Signal shipyard in Pascagoula and reported the trafficking to the US Department of Justice last week.
Subsequent media outrage in India prompted Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi to open an investigation into the matter.
Ravi said in New Delhi that licences of Dewan Consultants and S. Mansur & Company (which was reported to be recruiting fresh Indian workers for Signal) have been suspended.
While the protest outside Burnett’s office continued, workers received a phone call from Oomen Chandy, the former chief minister anjd now the leader of the opposition in Kerala, the home state of many of the workers. A workers’ leader on the human trafficking chain, which bound them to Signal, briefed him.
The guest workers were brought on short-term H2B visas to meet labour shortage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Their lawsuit alleges that recruiters conspired with Signal to control the workers with “a broad scheme of psychological coercion, threats of serious harm and physical restraint, and threatened abuse of the legal process”.
“We hope that this litigation forces the US and India into serious dialogue about ending the use of the guest worker programme to traffic Indians into an American nightmare,” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Centre for Racial Justice, which is helping the workers.
The workers’ litigation team includes attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Centre, the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund, and the Louisiana Justice Institute.
“With this litigation, the workers have taken a major step forward in exposing the way that prominent US recruiters and corporations use the guest worker programme as a legal sanction for worker abuse,” said Tushar Sheth of the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund.