How Signal preyed on immigrant workers

June 16, 2008

THE STRUGGLE of immigrant guest workers at the Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., captured national attention March 6, when more than 100 workers walked off their job to protest abuses by management and the extortion methods used by labor recruiters in India who had brought them to the U.S. to work.

Since then, the workers have taken their case to Washington to pressure politicians into taking action against both Signal and the recruiters. A hunger strike launched on May 14 in Washington underscored their determination.

The walkout at Signal came a year after five workers were fired for organizing. One of them, Sabulal Vijayan, remained in the area to keep organizing, aided by the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, Southern Poverty Law Center and other activists and organizations.

Keith Rosenthal and Alpana Mehta spoke with Vijayan about the struggle and its importance for the immigrant rights and labor movements.

HOW DID you come to work for Signal?

I WAS working in the Middle East, in Dubai. While I was on vacation from Dubai in Kerala, India, I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper saying that Dewan Consultants of Mumbai was recruiting to take some welders to America on a green card, or permanent residency, program.

I attended a seminar in a hotel in the city of Cochin. The seminar organizer told us in detail that they were sending people in a green card program and permanent residency program. At that time, they told us that it would take 18 months, and they asked for $20,000 that should be paid in three installments.

I paid the first installment, then returned to Dubai. Dewan eventually collected about $20,000 from me. This was just after Hurricane Katrina happened. At the end of 2006, the consultant said that due to the hurricane, I was going to Signal International in a permanent residency program on an H-2B visa.

Signal's lawyer, Michael C. Berman, went to Dubai and India with his colleagues, and said to us that "You will get H-2B visa in early 2006 for residency." The company delegates then came to the city of Chennai, and we underwent a trade test in front of them. They told me, "You're selected," and then I paid the last installment and came to the U.S.

Indian guest workers begin a hunger strike across from the White House
Indian guest workers begin a hunger strike across from the White House (Chris Yarrison | SW)

SO YOU were under the assumption that you would get a green card and be allowed to bring your family.

IN THE Gulf region of the Middle East, most of the workers have been working alone, and their families aren't allowed to enter into the country. So we were separated from our families for long, long years. I had continuous years in the Gulf region without my family.

I thought that if I spent some money, I could get a visa to the U.S., which is a country of liberty and justice. We heard a lot about the U.S.--that there is freedom for everyone. So I decided to come--especially since they were offering permanent residency for my family. They even collected my family members' visa processing fees and proceeded with my visa papers.

YOU'VE NEVER gotten that money back?

NO. THIS was money that I saved from the Middle East job to build a home. I also sold my wife's jewelry, and I borrowed from my friends. That's how I raised the $20,000.

WHAT WERE conditions like at Signal International?

IT WAS horrible--the worst experience of my life. When I set foot in the labor camp on December 5, 2006, they gave me a bed in a room with 23 other people. They called them bunkhouses. Actually, it was a trailer. And there was no space to move; there was no space to keep our belongings. It was like a pig sty.

There was no privacy. There were two toilets and four showers. People started duty at 6 a.m., but people started to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to rush to the bathrooms. If somebody was infected or diseased, everybody got the disease. They served substandard food. They treated us like slaves.

Whenever we raised our voice, they said, "This is not India, this is America--if you want to stay in this country, you must stay quiet and shut up and sit down." They told us, "We know the living conditions of Indians. You're getting better food and accommodations in this country, why are you asking for more?" They told us that Indians behave like animals.

Because of the bad accommodations and food, everybody was mentally tortured. Yet the company deducted $1,050 a month from each person [for room and board]. When we told them that we could live outside the camp and spend $500 a month [on an apartment], the company told us that they wanted us to stay in the camp.

CAN YOU talk about the experiences you had there as compared to other countries?

IN THE Gulf region, it's not always like that. I worked for petroleum construction companies with very nice accommodation, with food and everything provided. But in some places, the conditions are horrible, like at Signal.

In the Middle East, they are a little bit hard on people during duty time, forcing people to get the job done. But after the job is finished, after eight or 10 hours, people are totally free. They are human beings.

The companies aren't controlling their lives in sitting rooms; they're not tending to a labor camp with armed guards; they're not isolating them from society. After the job, they let the people be free. They can do whatever they need or go wherever they need.

But Signal International forced us to be in the labor camp, and made the camp only for Indians. They set the rules--what you can do, and what you can't. Even if we brought something from Wal-Mart, the security guards strictly inspected it. And when we took something out of the camp, the guards checked it.

This was at every point--in the mess halls and in the rooms. At all times, there were restrictions or some control by the company. We didn't have the right to meet. We didn't have the right to ask for our rights.

THE ARMED guards were in the labor camp?

NORMALLY, SIGNAL guards were at the gate and doing inspections in the camp. But on March 9, 2007, when we realized that we were not going to get a green card, and that Signal International was controlling our lives, we started to raise our voice.

We conducted about three meetings in the nearest Catholic church with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta and the New Orleans Workers' Center. They came to educate us about our human rights.

Then the company found out that we were organizing and asking for our rights, and started to retaliate against us, reducing our salaries. Again, we held some meetings, and the company sent armed guards into the camp at 5 a.m. They pulled three of our organizers and locked them up in a room for six hours. Armed guards were standing inside the room to take them into custody.

I was in the cafeteria, packing my lunch and taking my breakfast, when the camp manager came to me with armed guards. He told me, "You are under my custody, come to the hall where the people are locked up." I started shivering. I asked him, "Why?" And he told me, "Just come into my custody."

I walked to my room, and the security guard shouted at me, the camp manager chased me. I went into my room and told them that I wanted to wash my hands. But while I was washing my hands, I found some razor blades in the bathroom. I slit my wrists to commit suicide. I had spent so much money, I couldn't go back home.

I was admitted to the hospital for three days. And after six hours of interviews, the people inside the room were released, and five of us were fired from the company.

HOW DID the organizing get started?

FROM THE beginning, I was speaking for the people because of communication problems. Because of that, I was noticed by the company as a leader. But we were just peacefully fighting for justice. We were trying to live like human beings, and we became educated about the existing law.

It was very clear that the company was breaking the rules. The people came to know that the company wasn't going to change the H-2B visas into a green card, because according to the law, this can't be done. This reality--and the fact that people had sold their homes, given up good jobs in other countries, sold their jewelry, taken money from loan sharks and lenders--made everyone disappointed about the deception.

WHEN THE workers walked out, you chose as one of your slogans, "I Am a Man." Did you know that this was a slogan of a strike in Memphis by African American garbage workers in 1968, which Martin Luther King was supporting when he was shot?

WE WERE not that much aware of the struggles in the U.S. But we came to know that King said, "I am a man." I said this thing several times myself, "I am a man; I am a human being, and you should not treat us like we are slaves."

After I was fired on March 9, 2007, I went to New Orleans, and I saw that the Black people were sleeping under bridges and living in pitiful conditions. And I realized that the system is totally exploiting us--the system is exploiting the poor Black people in this country. It was amazing.

The company told us that there was no manpower in the U.S.--"that's why we are calling you." The reality was that people, working people, were wandering on the roads, looking for food.

But instead of taking these people and relocating them to jobs, the government is looking for ways to bring other poor people from other countries, in a guest-worker program. The recruiters, the company and the system are exploiting the lives of the poor ones and workers, and exploiting the rights of the citizens, too.

The system lets citizens and immigrants fight each other. Citizens think, "Because of the immigrants, I am not getting jobs." The reality is not that. The poor people aren't encouraged to go to the company, because the government isn't letting them take these jobs.

If citizens were employed in these kinds of jobs, the company couldn't practice their slavery on them. And if they can't push them to get the job done in such harsh conditions, they can't gain more profits.

WHAT DO you think about the debate in this country about immigrant guest-worker programs?

THE PEOPLE who are making the law are thinking and planning in terms of strengthening the economic power of this country. But the reality is experienced by workers like me. The reality is that they can get good manpower and good technicians from poor countries. The companies can exploit them as they wish. But they can't practice this on U.S. citizens.

It's a very good system for getting employees from outside. But they should be protected. The present system only protects the employers, not the employees. An H-2B visa allows an immigrant worker to work with only one employer. If the worker is employed by another employer, they will be illegal.

Also, the H-2B visa workers who are coming into this country should be getting more time to stay here. Ten months is nothing in this country. And these people should be with their families. For the last 16 months, the Signal workers have been without our families.

WHY DID the workers decide to launch a hunger strike?

MORE THAN 120 people walked out of the company on March 6, 2008. On March 7, they reported to a federal court that they were victims of trafficking and filed a suit against the company. On March 12, 2008, they walked from New Orleans to Washington to meet with members of Congress.

Lots of members of Congress promised that we would get justice. We waited for two months, up to May 14, and there was no justice in sight. We didn't want to work illegally in this country, so we tried to come to Washington again, and show the reality to the world by following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent program--Satyagraha.

So we did the hunger strike to open the eyes of the U.S. and the Indian governments. There were about 29 days of hunger strike. One worker, Mr. Paul Konar, continued his hunger strike for 23 days.

We got signatures from 18 members of Congress. Rep. Dennis Kucinich was the sponsor of the letter, which asked the Department of Justice to allow our continued presence in the U.S. to continue our struggle against the recruiters. Also, the head of three House committees--covering immigration, the judiciary and labor--gave letters to the Department of Justice asking for our continued presence.

We are not doing this to get a green card or to get a permanent residency. And we are not only fighting for Indians. We are fighting for all the poor ones who are coming to this country, and for the citizens of this country, to change the system to benefit the poor.

That's why we started the hunger strike. We suspended it only because 18 members of Congress signed on to the letter to the Department of Justice. And 10,000 people have signed a petition of support.

We are waiting on the Department of Justice to respect these letters and signatures. So for the time being, we have suspended the hunger strike. If we don't succeed, we will come back.

Our demands are to show the reality of the H-2B visa--that it's a blight on the system. We need to get some congressional hearings and to punish recruiters and companies like Signal International. Those people should be punished and sent to jail. We need to eliminate recruiting fees and change the system.

WHAT CAN others do to support you?

THERE ARE a lot of organizations helping us: the metal trades unions, the bricklayers union, and allies like AFL-CIO, South Asian Americans Learning Together, Jobs with Justice. Churches from all over the U.S. have been supporting us, along with the Institute for Policy Studies and the Indian Workers Congress.

The movement is growing in a good way, because people realize that we're fighting for justice and peace. Now we're waiting for the results of the letters to the Department of Justice. If they deny our rights, then we will come forward to fight again.

The citizens of this country should understand that we are not fighting against them. We are not fighting for just us, but for all human beings who are living in this country. Like the words say, "Liberty and justice for all."

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