Leading US rights body fights Indian guest workers’ cause

November 18th, 2008 - 10:19 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, Nov 18 (IANS) A leading US rights body has joined a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, filed early this year on behalf of about 500 Indians, alleging they were trafficked into the US through the H-2B guest worker programme.The guest workers, who were brought from India to work in shipyards after Hurricane Katrina, were misleadingly recruited, exploited and mistreated, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleged in a statement Monday.

The federal government has fallen short of its responsibility to protect the rights of guest workers in this country, it alleged.

One of the most active civil-rights activist groups in this country, ACLU has charged that these workers were given dishonest assurances of becoming lawful permanent US residents and subjected to squalid living conditions, fraudulent payment practices and threats of serious harm upon their arrival.

Observing that immigrant guest workers are among the most vulnerable groups of workers, Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program and co-counsel in the case, demanded that the government must take immediate action to stop sanctioning worker abuse and fix this dangerous system.

“Often paying exorbitant sums of money to deceitful and abusive recruiters in their home countries, these guest workers are subject to the control of a single ‘employer-sponsor’ once they’ve arrived in the US, with no safeguards in place to protect even the limited rights guaranteed by law,” he alleged.

The class action lawsuit was filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in March 2008 by Southern Poverty Law Center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

It came after a campaign early this year spearheaded by the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

The lawsuit complains that recruiting agents hired by Signal International, the marine industry company, held guest workers’ passports and visas; coerced them into paying extraordinary fees for recruitment, immigration processing and travel, and threatened the workers with serious legal and physical harm if they did not work under the Signal-restricted guest worker visa.

The complaint also charges that once in the US, the men were required to live in Signal’s guarded, overcrowded labour camps, subjected to psychological abuse and defrauded out of adequate payment for their work.

Signal has denied the charges.

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