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, â€œYou are living in slums in India. It is better than that slums.â€
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:
â€œOrganizations 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,â€ he declared. â€œThe conditions that people work in here are so exploitative theyâ€™re worse than the conditions for even undocumented workers.â€