US: Workers on Hunger Strike Say They Were Misled on Visas

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

WASHINGTON
- About a dozen metalworkers from India staged the fourth week of a
hunger strike here this week, camped under a shade tree on Embassy Row.

The workers, who walked off jobs in Gulf Coast shipyards in early
March, say they were victims of human trafficking when they were
brought to the United States under a temporary guest worker program.
The hunger strike is meant to pressure federal officials, and comes as
Congress is debating an expansion of the guest worker program, known as
H-2B for the type of temporary visa the workers receive.

The Indian workers say they were deceived by Signal International
and labor recruiters when they paid as much as $20,000 for visas they
believed would allow them to work and live permanently with their
families in the United States. In fact, the H-2B visas are for
short-term contracts.

"Everyone has a dream," said one of the protesters, Paul Konar, a
54-year-old worker from the Indian state of Kerala, speaking in Hindi
through a translator. "If we could come here legally to live with our
families, that was my dream."

Signal International, a marine oil rig construction company based in
Pascagoula, Miss., insists it also was misled about the visas and has
filed a lawsuit against the labor recruiters on the Gulf Coast and in
India who obtained them for the workers.

"This whole thing got started because of bad recruiting practices,"
Richard Marler, the chief executive of Signal, said in an interview. "I
wanted these workers to be happy employees. Why would I bring someone
in and make them unhappy so they would be less productive in their
work?"

Most of the workers, who are metal fitters and welders, lost their legal immigration
status when they left their jobs. They adopted the risky strategy of a
public hunger strike, they said, to step up pressure on the Justice
Department, which has the power to allow the workers to remain in the
United States during an investigation of their case.

In a letter this week, three top Democrats in the House of Representatives - George Miller and Zoe Lofgren of California, and John Conyers Jr.
of Michigan - asked the Justice Department and immigration officials to
investigate the workers' fraud accusations and offer them protection as
victims. The Justice Department this week confirmed it had opened an
investigation.

Since May 14, 5 of the 16 workers who participated in the hunger
strike have been hospitalized. Mr. Konar fasted the longest, taking no
food for 23 days until Thursday, when he was hospitalized with
abdominal pain. He was released in the evening.

The Indian workers, among 100 or so who left their jobs in March,
were taken to Signal shipyards in Pascagoula and in Orange, Tex., in
late 2006 and early 2007. They said they lived in sweltering labor
camps, crowded 24 workers to a room, under curfew and restricted from
leaving the yards, with $1,050 a month deducted from their paychecks
for their upkeep.

They said they learned only after they were here that they would not
receive visas, known as green cards, to remain in this country. In
March, the workers brought a federal lawsuit against Signal and the
recruiters, claiming they were defrauded and exploited.

Among those sued by Signal are Michael Pol, a labor recruiter in
Mississippi whose company is Global Resources; Malvin C. Burnett, an
immigration lawyer in New Orleans; and Sachin Dewan, a labor recruiter
based in Mumbai, India.

Signal executives disputed the workers' claims, saying they gave
medical and other payroll benefits, hired an Indian chef and invested
$4 million to provide new modular barracks for the workers at a time
when housing was critically scarce along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Before coming to the United States, many of the Indians had been
guest workers in other countries, where, they said, they had never been
able to bring their families.

So they jumped at offers by Mr. Dewan's company, in newspaper
advertisements in India and the Middle East, for "permanent lifetime
settlement in U.S.A. for self and family," in the words of one 2004 ad.
A copy was provided by the immigrants' lawyers.

Through Mr. Dewan, the workers said, they initiated applications for
employment-based green cards. In one letter, also provided by the
immigrants' lawyers, a worker, Rajan Pazhambalakode, was ordered by Mr.
Dewan to pay $4,595 each to Mr. Pol and Mr. Burnett. "The company shall
proceed with your green card for the United States of America," the
letter said, referring to Signal.

"I sold my home to raise that money," said Mr. Pazhambalakode, 43,
who is one of the protesters and has a wife and child. "I can't go home
empty-handed because of that great debt."

Meanwhile, on the Gulf Coast, Signal was seeking skilled workers,
overwhelmed with orders for repairs on oil rigs battered by Katrina.

"We were on our knees," Mr. Marler said, "and we wanted to
contribute to turning the Coast around. We were approached by these
labor providers, and we jumped at the chance."

While the workers said they were told they would be entering the
United States on temporary visas, they believed that Signal would help
them convert to green cards. But in general there is no legal route to
switch from a temporary H-2B visa to a permanent green card, which
allows immigrants to bring immediate family members.

After arriving at Signal, the workers soon realized the company was
not moving to secure any green cards. They maintain that Signal was
aware of the recruiters' visa promises. The company, in its court
papers, said its managers learned of the workers' hopes only when they
began to express their discontent.

The workers said the barracks where they were housed were isolated,
and company officials told them they would be deported if they left the
shipyards.

"It was a scary situation in that company," Mr. Pazhambalakode said,
speaking in Malayalam through an interpreter. They contacted the New
Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, a nonprofit group. Their
lawsuit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In a statement, Stephen H. Kupperman, a lawyer for Mr. Pol and
Global Resources, said the company "never in any way misled any person,
either in India or in the U.S." He said the contract between the
company and Signal ended in 2006.

Ralph R. Alexis III, a lawyer representing Mr. Burnett, said it was
his policy not to comment on active cases. There was no answer at
telephone numbers for Mr. Dewan in India.

AMP Section Name:Labor
  • 116 Human Rights