Mississippi mistreatment: workers not satisfied with envoy

March 28th, 2008 - 11:37 am ICT by admin  

By Arun Kumar
Washington, March 28 (IANS) Indian ambassador Ronen Sen has assured a group of Indian workers protesting alleged human trafficking and slave like treatment at a US shipyard that he would do all he could to protect their rights. But the workers said they were not satisfied. The assurance came at a three-hour long dialogue Thursday with about 100 workers from Signal International’s shipyard in Mississippi who came to Washington after an eight-day “journey for justice” from New Orleans to protest the Indian government’s alleged failure to protect them.

Sen gave a patient hearing to the workers and their NGO supporters who came marching to the Indian embassy from the nearby Dupont Circle chanting: “We want freedom, we want justice”, and carrying signs demanding they be treated with dignity.

After the meeting, the workers said the envoy appeared to take their complaints seriously, but they were not satisfied. “What we need is action, not just symbolic assurances,” said one of the workers, Rajan Pazhambalakode.

The workers also expressed disappointment at Sen declining to give a timeframe for actions to open US-India talks on protecting future Indian workers from abuses of the guest worker programme.

“We are not satisfied because the ambassador is locked in protocols. But human trafficking does not follow protocols,” said Sabulal Vijayan, former Signal worker and organizer with the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity.

Sen assured the workers that the embassy and the Indian government will go the extra mile in taking care of their safety, security and dignity.

However, he reminded them that they could not breach established diplomatic protocol by directly interceding with such agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Immigration and Customs Services or the Department of Justice.

“All of you Indian workers can approach me directly… we don’t need interlocutors and interpreters,” Sen said. “No Indian citizen should be ashamed to be on Indian territory…You are all a part of the family.”

Detailing the kind of abuses the group had gone through at the Mississippi plant, the workers alleged that many of them had to fork out $15,000 to $20,000 for the promise of a green card (permanent residence).

“We knew it was a H2B visa (for temporary guest workers) only at the very end,” Vijayan said. Others complained of poor food, cramped accommodation and charges that “Indians were behaving like animals”.

Declining to share the report prepared by officials of the mission after a visit to the Mississippi plant, Sen said: “Internal consultations are not shared with anybody”. But “Let there not be any mutual suspicion. It is an interim report. …There is nothing in the report except facts. There is no judgement involved”.

Sen rejected as “completely wrong” an allegation that Indian officials had characterised the workers as “semi-literate and greedy” in a media report. “It is insulting and I do not accept it. Even if inadvertently your sentiments are hurt, I apologise for it,” he said.

When the workers’ representatives sought the embassy’s intervention regarding alleged surveillance since the start of their march, Sen said: “We will not directly contact the US Immigration or Customs but we have already sensitised.

“We do not dictate and we do not give ultimatums. That is the way we operate,” he said when repeatedly asked by the organisers if he can come up with a specific timeline to address the grievances of the workers.

“We can take certain action in our country… but we cannot give any timeline to US authorities on how to go about it,” Sen said in response to a question.

The Indian envoy assured workers that there will be no retaliation against them by the Government of India for taking this course of action and he would convey “very faithfully” the sentiments and concerns to authorities in New Delhi.

When the workers’ representatives asked Sen to push for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), he said: “I will convey this request”.

The workers plan to remain in the US capital for seven days, during which they hope to meet key Congressional decision-makers on labour and immigration policy. They also plan to hold a rally in front of the White House Monday.

Signal has denied allegations that it mistreated workers. The company said Thursday it would stop hiring guest workers until more safeguards are in place to prevent recruiting abuses.

Richard Marler, Signal’s president and chief executive, said he was shocked to learn that foreign workers were allegedly charged thousands of dollars by recruiters. He said Signal has severed its contract with recruiter Global Resources and its principals and plans to sue the firm.

Marler said he was hurt by allegations that workers were subjected to poor living conditions, saying Signal provided catered meals, 24-hour transportation services, Internet access and other amenities. Marler said about 100 Indian workers who have stayed at Signal are happy with their jobs.

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