Tricked into a Guest Worker Program

My friend Ansour forwarded me this story from the LA Times on a group of Indian guest workers in the Gulf Coast. Signal International, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Texas and Mississippi, hired approximately 300 laborers from India as welders and pipe fitters in Mississippi under a guest worker program. In addition to decent wages, Signal allegedly promised good accommodations and steps to permanent US residency to its guest workers. But some of these workers have protested that Signal did not live up to any of its promises, and that they’ve been subjected to “slave” conditions.

Sabulal Vijayan of Kerala, for example, said that upon arriving to Mississippi, he discovered that the “good” accommodations promised by Signal were actually quite horrible:

“We were like pigs in a cage,” he said. His living quarters were cramped bunk houses where two dozen laborers shared two bathrooms.

In an interview on Democracy Now, Vijayan further elaborated:

It is too hard to live there, because somebody is sneezing, somebody is snoring, and somebody is making sound, and we cannot even go to bathroom without spending hours. There is only two bathrooms and four toilets. And we are struggling very well. And in the mess hall we are not getting good food even. And they are saying that this is Indian good. And when we make complain, the camp manager said to us that, “You are living in slums in India. It is better than that slums.”

Even worse, the company retaliated against employees who complained:

The company cut the workers’ wages from $1,850 a week to $1,350 or $950, depending on the position, Vijayan said. When he and other workers complained, they were fired without notice.

And now Vijayan finds himself in an awful predicament. He spent his entire life savings and went into debt in order to pay $15,000 to Signal’s recruiters. He was told this was “the price of coming to the U.S.”:

“I cannot go back to India because I cannot pay my debt,” Vijayan said of the money he borrowed to pay recruiters. He was so distraught that he recently slashed his wrist in a suicide attempt. His left arm is still bandaged.

Vijayan can’t just find another job in the US to pay back his debt because:

Vijayan had been issued a H-2B guest worker visa, which allows laborers into the country for certain non-agricultural jobs, typically for a year or less, and only once. An employer must secure the visa, and a laborer may not use it to work for another employer. Unlike the claims Vijayan said he read, workers are not guaranteed permanent residency after the term of their visa.

Of course, there’s two sides to every story. Ron Schnoor, Signal’s Pascagoula-based senior vice president and general manager, said that it’s all a fabrication:

The company had to demote some workers to lower-paying jobs in line with their qualifications, he said, and fire unskilled laborers for whom alternate positions could not be found. “There is no servitude here, or all the other horse crap that people are asserting,” he said.

But what I personally find most appalling is this editorial from a local Mississippi newspaper written in support of Signal, alleging that only the Indians are to blame for their situation:

The bunk houses, which sleep 20 to 24 men, are cramped and reminiscent of a college dormitory. The only messes found inside them were those created by the workers.

Yes, it’s those dirty brown people causing the squalid conditions, not the fact that Signal forced 24 men into living in one room. Nice.

Regardless of your views on immigrant rights or labor issues, this story highlights one important point: that many immigrants who enter guest worker programs aren’t fully aware of what they’re signing up for.

“Guest workers are usually poor people who are lured here by the promise of decent jobs, but all too often their dreams are based on lies,” said Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. The group published a report this week on instances of abuse among the estimated 90,000 workers currently in the country on H-2B visas. “The guest worker program has created a band of quasi-criminal recruiters in Mexico and other countries, and they really wield enormous power over peoples’ lives,” she said.

Other immigrant rights advocates have argued that guest worker programs do more harm than good, contrary to what most people assume. Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, had this to say on the story:

“Organizations that are fighting for the rights of workers and advocating on behalf of workers should be totally opposed to these kind of [guest worker] programs,” he declared. “The conditions that people work in here are so exploitative they’re worse than the conditions for even undocumented workers.”

27 thoughts on “Tricked into a Guest Worker Program

  1. Reading stories like this make me feel angry and ashamed. Worse, I know that if I were to point to this story as an example of why we need real immigration reform in this country, reform that protects people like Vijayana and the others treated like he was, my friends and colleagues will only shrug their shoulders and say something to the effect of “Serves him right”.

    Pardon me while I go beat my head against a wall.

  2. Great, thorough post as always Naina.

    One of the more surprising things on the DN story was this :

    African American women were working at the kitchen for $10 an hour. They were all fired and replaced by undocumented workers, who were hired for eight bucks an hour. Those undocumented workers were then fired and replaced by Brazilian guestworkers on H-2B visas, who were given those jobs for $6.

    So the guest workers were more exploitable than the undocumented ones ? I would have expected the opposite. I would have thought that, in theory, a guest-worker program with enough safeguards/protections would be better for the worker than working completely outside the law.

  3. As a Singaporean, this reminds me of the plight of foreigners on “work permits” in Singapore.

    Since the late 1970s/early 1980s, hundreds of thousands (even millions perhaps) of Indians, Bangladeshis, Thais, Myanmese, Chinese, Sri Lankans, etc have spent time working as labourers in Singapore. They are unrepresented by any union, and are not allowed to convert their work permits to residence permits in any way. They also can’t marry or bring their wives or kids over. A few NGOs were created recently, such as TWC2 and HOME, to voice their issues.

    Only in the last few years has the government made some effort to ensure their proper accomodation. Before that, and even today, many of them live in atrocious conditions- 20 to a tiny room, sharing a few toilets, no private space etc, with those working in construction sometimes living in ramshackle huts on the sites.

    Check out http://www.home.org.sg/ for an idea of some of the issues they face.

  4. Other immigrant rights advocates have argued that guest worker programs do more harm than good, contrary to what most people assume.

    i’m an immigration restrictionist, i think the quotas should be reduced. i come at it from the another angle: guest workers (and H1Bs too) are basically in a weaker position vis-a-vis corporations than american workers who have full citizen rights (also, they come from nations where their paycheck is supporting many more people, so they can’t just “quit”). the argument can be made that guest workers increase economic efficiency, but we’re a republic, not a corporation, we don’t just export, fire or “cut costs” in regards to citizens who aren’t living up to the productivity quotas. guest workers may be more economically efficient and “smart” from a business angle than our current unskilled population, but we can’t export that population to cut costs.

  5. Re Razib’s point, what would really improve economic efficiency is unfettered immigration: no permits, no nothing. Of course, this is not politically feasible, democrats will hate it because unions (which thrive on protectionist labour markets) will hate it; republicans will hate it, well because they are republicans. Of course with free mobility, people will go back home a lot as well, because they don’t have to make the hazardous and uncertain journey again.

  6. republicans will hate it, well because they are republicans.

    Wrong. Considering that Wall Street Journal, as Republican as they come, has been calling for looser immigration rules to aid their corporate readers. National Review, which represents different segments of the Republicans is more restrictionist. But hey, why let facts get in the way of rhetoric?

  7. what would really improve economic efficiency is unfettered immigration: no permits, no nothing.

    yep, and this would lead also to unfettered blowing up of buildings acros the country, which would enable a spurt in engineering and construction – we have a winner here!!

  8. The company cut the workers’ wages from $1,850 a week to $1,350 or $950>

    Is this right? This is slave wages?

    Not trying to troll, just asking if you’re sure these numbers are correct because I know a coupla American workers who will weld for $950 a week/$47,000+ a year and get their own housing. If we’re talking about a 40 hour work week, (which we probably aren’t).

  9. But what punishment for the company? I hope they do something. Perhaps it was in the article, I only scanned…

    The first sign of shady is the fact they expect you to pay for a job with them. Not that people in India would know that, but in terms of some sort of lawsuit…

  10. OK. Along with comment #10…

    $1850 a WEEK?! Thats $96,200/year! Even making being “slashed down” to $950 a week still gets you $49,400/year.

    There has to be some kind of typo.

  11. I’m sure that this is a loophole someone has anticipated and closed, but: why don’t abused guest workers intentionally try to get deported? When conditions are this bad, surely it would be better to escape back home than to suffer. And the recruiter couldn’t do much to keep the employee in the States if he had violated immigration law.

    The big issue, I guess, is the debt. But I dunno — wouldn’t it be easier to avoid those creditors (and lobby the government to pass reforms to help out abused ‘guest workers’) in India than living in slave-like conditions in the States? Do people in this kind of situation ever get out of debt anyway? In situations like these, doesn’t the employer basically charge for housing, food, etc… to keep them in the hole?

    I’m also surprised that India — as a frequent source of indentured labor all over the world — doesn’t have regulations making it harder for foreign recruiters to use this kind of economic blackmail when its citizens are mistreated abroad.

  12. $1850 a WEEK?! Thats $96,200/year! Even making being “slashed down” to $950 a week still gets you $49,400/year.

    My guess, is that much per month.

  13. I’m also surprised that India — as a frequent source of indentured labor all over the world — doesn’t have regulations making it harder for foreign recruiters to use this kind of economic blackmail when its citizens are mistreated abroad.

    For the near term, not likely – India makes as much money from overseas Indians sending money back as they do from software exports. Far better, from New Delhi’s POV, to have them go overseas – rather than make opportunities at home. Then they become some other country’s problem.

  14. $1850 a WEEK?! Thats $96,200/year! Even making being “slashed down” to $950 a week still gets you $49,400/year. My guess, is that much per month.

    It may very well be per week. It would probably be 12 hr days. And probably 2 weeks on 2 weeks off schedule. Like the offshore oil drilling sites. The pay is similar to this. But 12hr, 2 weeks on and off and in the end you see the pay is similar to working in McD’s. People get tempted by this number 1000/week, take up the job and then realize it isn’t any better.

  15. This is very disturbing. The pay sounds good, but the article also mentions that the worker had to pay about $15,000 to come out in the first place. Factor in that and good portion I’m sure is taxed…what are they left with?

  16. Wrong. Considering that Wall Street Journal, as Republican as they come, has been calling for looser immigration rules to aid their corporate readers. National Review, which represents different segments of the Republicans is more restrictionist. But hey, why let facts get in the way of rhetoric?

    It was a toungue in cheek comment. wsj has always been a farily libertarian journal, and yes I am aware of the US political spectrum

  17. yep, and this would lead also to unfettered blowing up of buildings acros the country, which would enable a spurt in engineering and construction – we have a winner here!!

    I see that the standard of electronic public discourse hasn’t improved since the usenet days.

    You have to have some sort of security check, duh! We already do that for all visitors, tourists, students and immigrants.

  18. Yeah $1850 a week is pretty awesome if they work 50 weeks a year.. I would quit school if I could make that kind of money !

  19. Can someone please tell me if debt here ($15,000 to Signal’s recruiters) has an impact on ones finances in homeland if one were to go back home?

    Ex.-My cousins in Colombia came here and escaped all of their debts there and made a fresh start here, opened a business, etc.

  20. yep, and this would lead also to unfettered blowing up of buildings acros the country, which would enable a spurt in engineering and construction – we have a winner here!!

    Actually, has anyone ever proven links between illegal immigration and terrorism? The 9/11 hijackers were here legally, weren’t they? From a purely strategic perspective it wouldn’t make much sense to go this way. If you’re interested in doing the really heinous bad shit, why give authorities ANY technical reason to check you out? I’ve always thought this was more of a rhetorical red herring than a genuine concern (but I know I could be wrong).

  21. $1850 a WEEK?! Thats $96,200/year! Even making being “slashed down” to $950 a week still gets you $49,400/year. There has to be some kind of typo.

    Check the article yourself — I copied this quote word for word.

    The “slave” conditions aren’t just in reference to pay. Consider the following factors collectively: 1. Going into $15,000 in debt to get here. (FYI, that goes a long way for some people in India.) 2. Forced into living in filthy accommodations. 3. Getting fired for voicing criticism. 4. Not being able to find another job that pays the same amount because of guest worker provisions.

    When you have to go into debt to get a job, get locked into that job, can’t voice criticism or quit, and you fear having to face your debtors when you go back to India, then yes, it is a form of servitude IMO. Do you know how hard it is to earn back $15,000 on Indian wages as a welder or pipe fitter?

  22. How apropos that this was written yesterday. I went to the screening of “A Dream in Doubt” last night at the Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco, and they play a short film called “Someone Else’s War”, which took a good look a similar situation with immigrant workers in Iraq, employed by Halliburton. Was an excellent movie, and if you can find it screened near you, I encourage you to check it out. (side note…”A Dream in Doubt” about the murders of Sodhi brothers after 9/11 was excellent too)

  23. This is quite sad. I had no idea that South Asians came here as guest workers, not that exploitative working conditions are any worse when South Asians are involved. Thanks for sharing this.

  24. I was told that if you’re a contractor (most likely in these jobs) the tax rate on your contract is 50% — not sure if that’s true so even allowing for the 1850 per week, lop off half to get the after-tax take-home pay. Just my $.02 folks…