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Business News -> Indian dock workers protest in US; embassy sends probe team.


Indian dock workers protest in US; embassy sends probe team
New York/New Delhi, March 11, 2008 (IANS)

Vayalar Ravi, Minister of Overseas Indian AffairsSome of the 500 Indian dock workers who filed a lawsuit accusing their US employer and recruiters of human trafficking held a rally in New Orleans, even as India Tuesday suspended the licenses of two Indian recruiting agents who sent the workers to the US. Meanwhile, the Indian embassy in Washington 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.

In New Delhi, Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi told IANS that an inquiry report is awaited from the Protector of Emigrants and also from the Indian embassy in Washington. "We expect the report tonight or tomorrow morning," he said. The ministry has ordered an inquiry against Dewan Consultants and S. Mansur and Company, the two recruiting agents. "We have suspended their licences till the inquiry is complete. If the report finds them guilty, their registration will be cancelled," said a MOIA senior official.

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 Vayalar Ravi to open an investigation into the matter.

While the protest outside Burnett's office continued, workers received a phone call from Oomen Chandy, the former chief minister and 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.

The workers were unhappy at the poor living conditions, as up to two dozen of them were bunched into a single dormitory and expenses on food and electricity were deducted from their salaries. The workers were also angry that the recruiters had charged them between Rs.600,000 to Rs.900,000 as commission on the promise that they will get long-term employment or green card.

A similar issue erupted earlier in March 2007 when workers' protests took place. Following the negative publicity, Signal International reportedly increased the workers' salary to $19.15 per hour and terminated its contract with Global Resources.

Following the uproar, several workers left the company and got jobs in other firms, while some others went absconding. A few workers also engaged lawyers to file applications for work permit and green card.

Officials estimate that about 100 workers remained in Pascagoula, and 40-50 in Orange County, Texas.

The remaining workers apparently continued with Signal in the hope that their visas would be extended, which was not done. Meanwhile, Signal contracted S. Mansur and Company to arrange for another set of workers from India.

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