dock workers protest in US; embassy sends probe team
New York/New Delhi, March 11, 2008 (IANS)
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.
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
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.
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
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
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."
said Signal was not returning calls from the consulate.
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.
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.
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".
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
workers' litigation team includes attorneys from the Southern Poverty
Law Centre, the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund,
and the Louisiana Justice Institute.
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
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.
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.
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.
estimate that about 100 workers remained in Pascagoula, and 40-50
in Orange County, Texas.
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