Indian workers on Gulf Coast fight modern day slavery

Hundreds of workers from India who were forced into modern day slavery at Gulf Coast shipyards for more than a year after Hurricane Katrina are demanding that the federal courts certify their lawsuit as a class action against the company that hired them.

The suit was originally filed back in 2008 on behalf of seven individuals by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. The seven worked for Signal International, an oilrig construction company they say engaged in human trafficking.

On Feb. 1, lawyers for the workers asked U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey to certify the case as a class action suit covering 500 individuals.

The workers were lured from India to the U.S. after the 2005 hurricane. Signal promised them they would receive green cards.

The cards were never forthcoming and the workers were forced to live in crowded, prison-like barracks with unsanitary conditions.

The case is of major concern to the U.S. labor movement.

Eddie Acosta, an AFL-CIO spokesperson, said that, contrary to Signal’s claim, there were hundreds of skilled American workers available throughout the Gulf region when the Indian workers were transported to the shipyards. “The American workers were available because so many with skills were out of work in the aftermath of Katrina,” he said.

The Indian workers were brought from India on H-2B visas to work in Signal’s Mississippi and Texas facilities.

The company got approval from the Bush administration for its claim that it needed 500 skilled welders and pipefitters from India because it could not find that many skilled U.S. workers.

“They lured them here because they were the cheaper but skilled labor they needed to rebuild after the hurricane,” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

As a result of the lawsuit, evidence surfaced more than a year ago,  said Soni, that the Bush administration used two federal agencies to instruct Signal on how to harass, fire and deport the workers who are now involved in the push for the class action suit.

Lawyers for the workers have released documents showing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol directed Signal on how to repress the 500 workers who eventually began organizing to protest their working conditions.

The sworn depositions taken by the lawyers show that representatives of the Bush-controlled agencies mapped out for Signal a schedule of arbitrary firings and private deportations of workers who were leading the protests.

One of the documents shows that Signal officials actually resisted when ICE told them to fire workers who then, under the H-2B visa program, could be deported on the spot. The document shows, however, that the company resisted not out of concern for human rights but because it did not want to pay, as ICE suggested, for the plane tickets back to India.

Although Bush administration support for Signal’s repression of the workers became known only a year ago, it has been known for much longer that Signal had traffickers in India who were signing up workers with false promises of permanent visas and residency.

For those crimes Signal has already been assessed $22 million in fines by a third federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

Aly Raju, one of the Indian workers involved who has done everything including marching and lobbying in Washington  described conditions at the shipyards. “We were held in a labor camp in the shipyard, behind barbed wire and guarded by security so no one [on the outside] knew our whereabouts. We were 24 men to a small room with no privacy and two toilets. They charged so much for the food and bunks that we couldn’t send any money or repay our families for the money they spent helping us get to the U.S.”

Raju said that the workers knew, almost from the beginning, that the Bush administration had been in collusion with Signal. “When we protested to our managers about the abuse,” he said, “we were told by the company that it was just following orders from the U.S. Government.”

Photo: New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.