Houston: They came from India to work in Orange and Pascagoula as welders and pipe fitters for Signal International Llc. The visas were temporary, but many of the 500 guest workers were led to believe they eventually would receive green cards and could move their families to the US, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. To pay the $20,000 (Rs8 lakh) in recruiting fees, many sold their homes and depleted their life savings.
When they got here, they were put in bunkhouses—24 to a room—and charged $1,050 a month for bed and board, said Kristi Graunke, staff attorney at the centre.
Betrayed? A file picture of Indian workers of Signal International protesting against work conditions in Mississippi, US.
Several workers in Pascagoula complained about their living conditions and were threatened with deportation, according to Graunke. A protest drew the attention of the press and led to the centre’s lawsuit last month against the giant marine and fabrication service company.
Now Signal said it was a mistake and blamed third-party recruiters. “Both Signal and our employees were misled,” said a written statement from president and CEO Richard Marler. “We are going to stand by our workers and do what we can to help them get justice. The recruiters’ abuses cannot be tolerated.”
The workers earn about $20 an hour plus benefits, according to Signal. It was only after the workers began to arrive in the US that Signal learned of problems, said the company. It tried to get the excessive fees refunded to the workers, the CEO said, and fired its recruiter when that company refused.
“Signal had never used the H-2B programme before and mistakenly put our trust in the wrong people. I was outraged to learn how the workers were misled before joining Signal,” Marler said.
Graunke said the law centre, a liberal advocacy group for poor people in the region, believes Signal was more aware than it’s letting on.
“Companies like Signal often chose to look the other way,” Graunke said. Graunke added that she believes Signal’s change of position reflects the litigation it’s facing and concern about its public image rather than a change of heart. Signal had its own employees recruiting in India, she said.
Erin Casey Hangartner, a lawyer in New Orleans representing Signal, said the firm’s statement was in response to the lawsuit as well as “misleading and incorrect” reports. While Signal employees were in India to verify and oversee the potential candidates’ skill testing, they weren’t aware of misleading statements made by the recruiters, she said.
The programme, which doesn’t allow the temporary foreign workers to change jobs, gives employers a tremendous amount of control over working conditions, Graunke said. “All too often, in exchange for large fees, workers are lured to the US with promises of a better life, only to be trapped in a modern form of indentured servitude,” said Aaron Albright, press secretary to the House Education and Labor Committee in Washington, DC.
“We need to ensure that sufficient safeguards are in place to protect all workers, both US workers and guest workers, from exploitation,” said Albright, whose panel conducted hearings recently on the abuses of the H-2B programme. “Strong labour standards that are vigorously enforced are essential to prevent employers from driving down wages and hurting our economy.”
©2008/The New York Times