Indian workers at US shipyard allege human trafficking

March 7th, 2008 - 10:48 pm ICT by admin  

New York, March 7 (IANS) More than 100 Indian workers at a Mississippi shipyard staged a walkout claiming they were victims of human trafficking and lived and worked in abysmal conditions. The workers plan to report themselves to the Department of Justice as trafficking victims and demand federal prosecution of the employer, Signal International, a local television channel WLOX-TV reported.

They claim they were lured to come on H2B visas for temporary workers to Pascagoula shipyard run by Signal after Hurricane Katrina caused worker shortage.

The TV channel quoted Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Centre for Racial Justice, who served as an interpreter for the workers, as saying Thursday that they lived “like pigs in a cage” in a company-run “work camp”.

New Orleans is a city in Louisiana, adjoining Mississippi.

“I’ve been a guest worker all my life. I’ve never seen these kinds of conditions,” said Soni, contending that the workers stayed 24 people to a room, for which the company deducted $1,050 a month from their pay cheques”.

The workers claimed they had paid up to $20,000 each in order to come to the US.

“They promised us green cards and permanent residency, and instead gave us 10-month visas and made us live like animals in company trailers,” said former Signal employee Sabulal Vijayan, who tried to organise his fellow workers last year and was fired.

Signal sent armed guards to detain and fire the organisers, according to a press release from Stephen Boykewich, who works with Soni at the New Orleans centre.

“We were trapped between an ocean of debt at home and constant threats of deportation from our bosses in Mississippi,” Vijayan said.

Now the workers are taking action to protect future victims.

“The recruiters who defrauded us are collecting money from other workers right now with the same false promises. We are speaking out to protect them,” said Vijayan, who has testified before a Congressional subcommittee investigating post-Katrina labour violations in the region.

According to Boykewich’s release, the chain began in 2006 when recruiters in Mumbai and New Orleans together with Signal, a subcontractor, used the post-Katrina labour shortage to create a trafficking racket within the guest worker programme.

“The US 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 Soni.

Signal has denied the charges in a statement claiming it spent over $7 million to house the workers.

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