Modern-day slavery exposed by guest workers

Daniel Castellanos was lured from his native city of Lima, Peru, all the way to the U.S. Gulf Coast where, he was told, a construction job and a green card would be waiting for him. All he had to do to land the full-time, $11-an-hour job was pay $5,000 to a recruiter in Peru.

He figured this was his chance — as a worker with legal status in the U.S. he could work hard and send money back to his poverty-stricken family in Peru.

“They promised us construction work but made us do cleaning in hotels,” he said. Instead of working a full 40-hour week at $11 an hour, Castellanos, along with 80 Panamanians, 100 Bolivians and 70 Dominicans, was paid $6 an hour for a 25-hour week doing the dirty work in New Orleans luxury hotels. Those same hotels, meanwhile, told thousands of African Americans in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged city that no work was available for them.

“With that wage, it was impossible for me to pay back the debt to the recruiter, much less send any money back home,” Castellanos said.

Sabul Vijayan was in deep trouble recently. He and 23 fellow “guest workers” from India were jammed into a small dormitory in an aluminum shack surrounded by barbed wire, in a remote corner of the Signal International Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss.

Vijayan and 100 others were lured from their their home state of Kerala, India, all the way to Mississippi where, they were told, high-paying jobs and permanent residency status were waiting for them. The icing on the cake was that their families could join them in eight months, they were told. Signal International agents in India charged them as much as $20,000 apiece for the trip to America.

They were forced to pay almost half of their much lower than promised wages for “rent” in the filthy, cramped quarters. Most of the rest of their wages were withheld as payment against their $20,000 debt, and their families were not allowed to join them. They became virtual prisoners because the company took away their passports and visas.

When they complained about either their living or working conditions, company supervisors threatened them with firing, which, for a “guest worker” with an H-2B visa, means automatic deportation.

Vijayan said a supervisor told him, “We know what it’s like in India — you don’t deserve better.”

Determined to break the chains of their modern-day slavery, Vijayan and three other Indian welders at the shipyard got together with Castellanos and took these stories to Capitol Hill April 1, where they briefed lawmakers on the abusive guest worker system in the United States. The AFL-CIO paid their way. The testimony came just as the government is being petitioned by other unscrupulous employers to approve 65,000 additional H-2B visa applications.

Labor unions have noted that H2-B visa requests are supposed to be granted only when a company can prove that it is impossible to fill a position with a worker already in the country. Congress defeated the Bush administration’s immigration “reform” plan last year. That plan had called for a stepped up guest worker program, describing it as a “path to citizenship.”

Defeated in Congress, the Bush administration went ahead with de-facto implementation of its plan by approving more and more big business requests for H-2B visa workers.

“H-2B is a system of slavery,” Vijayan says.

Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice Project, joined the workers in their visits to lawmakers. “The H-2B visa system deprives the workers of their rights,” Bauer said, “binds them only to the employer they are placed with — they can’t switch jobs and retain the visa — and deprives them of legal representation to better their lot, unless they can find a pro-bono public interest attorney.”

In addition to paying their travel costs to Washington, the AFL-CIO helped with getting the workers legal representation. The Indian workers have filed suit against Signal International, accusing the company of human trafficking. Castellanos is likewise suing the Decatur Hotel in New Orleans.

The efforts of the victimized workers appear to be paying off. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said, earlier this month, that he supports the legal actions they have taken and that it “underscores the U.S. guest worker program is in serious need of reform.” Miller, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said he cannot support the H-2B visa program until the abuses end and “we must insist the program pay workers the prevailing wage. We cannot allow the program to drive down wages in America.”

jwojcik@pww.org