New York Times:Suit Points to Guest Worker Program Flaws

3 02 2010
New York Times
February 2, 2010

Suit Points to Guest Worker Program Flaws

Immigration authorities worked closely with a marine oil-rig company in Mississippi to discourage protests by temporary guest workers from India over their job conditions, including advising managers to send some workers back to India, according to new testimony in a federal lawsuit against the company, Signal International.

The cooperation between the company and federal immigration agents is recounted in sworn depositions by Signal managers who were involved when tensions in its shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., erupted into a public clash in March 2007.

Since then, hundreds of the Indian workers have brought a civil rights lawsuit against the company, claiming they were victims of human trafficking and labor abuse. Signal International is fighting the suit and has sued American and Indian recruiters who contracted with the workers in India. The company claims the recruiters misled it — and the workers — about the terms of the work visas that brought them to this country.

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have opened separate investigations. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined in September that there was “reasonable cause” to believe the Indian guest workers at Signal had faced discrimination and a work environment “laced with ridicule and harassment.”

The Signal case has come to represent some of the flaws and pitfalls, for immigrants and for employers, in the H-2B temporary guest worker program. As Congressional lawmakers weigh moving forward this year on an overhaul of the immigration system, they are debating whether to include an expansion of guest worker programs.

A lawyer for Signal, Erin C. Hangartner, said the company could not comment on the suit.

As it rushed to repair offshore oil rigs after Hurricane Katrina, Signal International hired about 500 skilled metalworkers from India in 2006. Numerous workers have said that they paid as much as $20,000 to Signal’s recruiters, many going into debt or selling their homes. They said recruiters had promised that their visas would soon be converted to green cards, allowing them to remain as permanent residents.

Once the workers realized they would not receive green cards, many complained of fraud and banded together to seek help from American lawyers.

In a deposition in the lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in New Orleans, Signal’s chief operating officer, Ronald Schnoor, said he grew frustrated with Indian workers who were “chronic whiners.” In early 2007 he decided to fire several who were encouraging protests.

Those workers “were making impossible demands” for the company to secure green cards for them or to repay the high fees, Mr. Schnoor said. They were “taking workers away from their work and actually trying to get them to join some effort they were organizing,” he said.

Mr. Schnoor and Darrell Snyder, a manager in the shipyard, where the Indians were living in a labor camp, said they had consulted with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for “guidance” on how to fire the workers, following the rules of the H-2B program.

Mr. Schnoor said the “direction” he received from an immigration enforcement agent was this: “Don’t give them any advance notice. Take them all out of the line on the way to work; get their personal belongings; get them in a van, and get their tickets, and get them to the airport, and send them back to India.”

Signal managers said they tried to carry out those instructions on March 9, 2007, putting several Indian workers into vans to take them to the airport. They were prevented from leaving the shipyard by immigrant advocates gathered at the gates.

In an internal e-mail message 10 days later, Mr. Snyder reported that another immigration official had assured him in a meeting that day that the agency would pursue any Indian workers who left their jobs, “if for no other reason than to send a message to the remaining workers that it is not in their best interests to try and ‘push’ the system.”

Carl Falstrom, an immigration lawyer in New Orleans who is not associated with the Signal case, said there were rules for employers who fired guest workers. They are required to provide return airfare to the workers’ home countries, and they are supposed to notify the visa agency, Citizenship and Immigration Services, when workers are no longer employed. But, Mr. Falstrom said, private companies cannot carry out deportations.

Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, which represents some workers in the lawsuit, said the managers’ testimony showed that immigration enforcement agents had “advised the corporation on how to retaliate against workers who were organizing.”

An ICE spokesman, Brian Hale, said he could not comment on a continuing investigation. But Mr. Hale said ICE agents were generally aware that a company that fires workers in the H-2B program “is prohibited from compelling individuals to get on the plane.”





PLEASE VISIT NOWCRJ’S NEW HOME ON THE WEB – WWW.NOWCRJ.ORG

23 11 2008

The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice has a new home on the web: www.nowcrj.org

You can find all the latest information on NOWCRJ’s work at the new site, and all future blog entries at www.nowcrj.org/weblog

We’ll see you there!





The Forum newspaper – Workers are victims, pastor says

4 11 2008

Workers are victims, pastor says
Patrick Springer
The Forum – 11/04/2008

A Lutheran pastor who has visited some of the 23 men jailed on charges they are illegal immigrants from India believes they are victims of a human trafficking scam once held as “indentured servants” before escaping to North Dakota.

The Rev. Grant Stevensen, who visited six of the men in the Cass County Jail this weekend, said Monday that each of the men paid $20,000 to a Mississippi company in the belief it would help provide them legal jobs as welders or pipe fitters.

All of the men were arrested last week at the offices of a local construction company, and have been charged with obtaining counterfeit identity cards and making false statements. They are expected to make their next appearances Friday in U.S. District Court in Fargo.

The men were working on the ethanol plant under construction near Casselton, N.D., for Wanzek Construction, which became suspicious of their legal status and alerted federal officials.

Stevensen, pastor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in St. Paul, met with the men Saturday after learning from a fellow social justice activist that they were Christians and wanted to see a clergy member. He brought Bibles and was able to speak with six of the men, who spoke Hindi, with the aid of an interpreter.

After showing up in Mississippi to work at a shipyard on the Gulf Coast, the men were held in a compound where they were not free to come and go, Stevensen said.

The men are accustomed to traveling abroad for work to support their families back in India.

“They’re like monks,” Stevensen said. “All they want to do is weld and do pipe fitting. They live simple lives.”

After a large number of workers escaped in March, they picketed the company. Some walked to Washington and met with members of Congress, Stevensen said. Their protests, with support from advocacy groups, prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, last summer wrote justice officials to ask that the workers be given “continuing presence” status, which would enable them to remain in the U.S. pending the outcome of the investigation. The men would be important witnesses, he said in the letter.

Leahy’s staff called to check on the status of the 23 men being held in Cass County, spokesman David Carle said Monday.

“These folks are not running from the law,” Stevensen said. “They decided to take action in Mississippi and shed light on it.”

Immigrants’ rights advocates have said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be targeting the traffickers rather than arresting and jailing exploited workers who triggered an official investigation.

“Why isn’t ICE spending national resources investigating criminal traffickers, instead of targeting and terrifying the victims?” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Center for Racial Justice.

Drew Wrigley, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, has said his office is aware of the Justice Department’s investigation but declined further comment. Requests Monday for comment from Justice officials in Washington were not returned.

“When it comes to investigations we generally don’t talk about it,” spokesman Tim Counts of ICE in the Twin Cities said. “I can’t confirm or deny any of that except to say the investigation is continuing.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522





ICE raid targets, snares human trafficking victims

1 11 2008

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT SAKET SONI — 504 881 6610

New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice

ICE Raid Targets, Snares Human Trafficking Victims

Victims Demand Access to Their Legal Counsel, but ICE Refuses

Oct. 29, 2008—Over 20 Indian Guest Workers who triggered a high-profile federal investigation into human trafficking were targeted this morning by a raid carried out by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency near Fargo, North Dakota. Despite workers’ repeated demands for their attorneys, ICE blocked workers’ access to their legal counsel, outraging national experts and advocates.

The workers were among approximately 500 individuals trafficked to the United States after Hurricane Katrina by Gulf Coast employer Signal International, LLC. Workers were subjected to forced labor in Mississippi and Texas labor camps. They escaped the labor camps earlier this year to come forward and report human trafficking to the Department of Justice. The workers triggered a major criminal trafficking investigation, which is still open, filed a federal class action lawsuit in New Orleans against Signal International, LLC, and labor recruiters in the U.S. and India, and staged a hunger strike in Washington, DC, to push for the prosecution of Signal.

“It is an outrage that workers who courageously came forward at great personal risk to cooperate with the Department of Justice in a federal trafficking investigation were targeted by ICE and then denied access to their own legal counsel,” said Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center. “This is yet another example of immigration enforcement run amok. ICE terrorizes and detains workers rather than targeting bad employers,” added Hincapié.

Upon realizing that they were being targeted by ICE, the workers presented letters explaining they were victims and witnesses to the federal crime of human trafficking. The letter listed their attorney’s name and contact information. They communicated that they did not want to be questioned without legal counsel. ICE summarily refused the workers’ requests and questioned them individually without attorneys or interpreters.

“Why isn’t ICE spending national resources investigating criminal traffickers, instead of targeting and terrifying the victims?” asked Saket Soni, Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “Since these workers have come forward to report Signal International, LLC, to the Department of Justice, they have faced ICE surveillance, ICE arrests, and now an ICE sting operation.”

U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley held a news conference today, briefing the press on the ICE sting operation. Wrigley omitted to mention that workers were cooperating in a DOJ investigation into human trafficking.





NYTimes Editorial on NOWCRJ and unfair Gustav evacuation

21 09 2008

‘Never Again,’ Again

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/opinion/21sun2.html

Hurricane Gustav gave the state of Louisiana a test for which it had three years to prepare. There were thousands of poor, sick, disabled and elderly people who could not get out on their own. They needed to be rescued with dispatch, and sheltered in safety and dignity.

One simple test. The state flunked.

Three years to the week after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, Louisiana executed a fundamentally unfair evacuation plan and did it badly. It relied on dividing the population into separate streams: People with their own cars were directed to shelters run by parishes, churches and the Red Cross. People with medical problems not requiring hospitalization were taken to special shelters. Sex offenders had a shelter to themselves.

All those without a car or a ride were taken on state buses to four state-run warehouses. It was in these shelters, including two abandoned stores, a Wal-Mart and a Sam’s Club, that thousands of working-poor New Orleanians got a sickening reminder of Katrina.

Evacuees said they had had no idea where they were going; bus drivers would not tell them. When they arrived, there were not enough portable toilets, and no showers. For five days there was no way to bathe, except with bottled water in filthy outdoor toilets. Privacy in the vast open space — 1,000 people to a warehouse, shoulder-to-shoulder on cots — was nonexistent. The mood among evacuees was grim, surrounded as they were by police officers and the National Guard, with no visitors or reporters allowed.

“We didn’t want to evacuate into a prison,” Lethia Brooks told the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an organization that accompanied the evacuees, inspected the shelters and collected hundreds of stories into a report sharply critical of the state’s response.

Gustav ended up being no Katrina, and the week of suffering was not as severe as the deathly mayhem of three years ago. But residents had every right to expect far better treatment than they received. After a week of indignities in crowded, unsanitary shelters, many returned home with their fragile finances in turmoil. They had been forced to buy extra basics while out of their homes, and September rent was due.

The secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Social Services, which was responsible for the shelters, resigned after this scandal and one involving problems with food stamp distribution.

Now, many poor residents are vowing “never again,” as in, “Never again will we get on the bus to be warehoused. We’ll ride out the next storm.” In New Orleans, disaster is never far away, and government incompetence cannot be allowed to undermine a swift, sure evacuation. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration should move quickly on a better plan that does not expose the poor to differential, substandard treatment.





NYTimes Editorial on NOWCRJ and Gustav

8 09 2008

No Shelter from the Storm

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/07/opinion/07sun2.html

When a disaster hits, saving lives comes before anything else, even when those lives don’t have the right immigration papers. That is why the Department of Homeland Security called off its agents when Hurricane Gustav bore down on New Orleans. Just days after staging the biggest workplace raid ever, not far away in Mississippi, the agency promised there would be no raids or checkpoints to slow the evacuation of the Gulf Coast.

The decision was practical and humane, but it was not enough to persuade many immigrant workers to accept help in evacuating. They feared that immigration agents would arrest them at Red Cross shelters.

Staff members at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an organization of black and Latino laborers created after Hurricane Katrina, said they pleaded in vain for written assurances from the Red Cross that undocumented immigrants would be safe in its shelters.

The Red Cross has a long-standing policy of impartiality; it never asks evacuees about their legal status. But the workers’ center wanted something more reassuring. It asked the Red Cross to state in writing that its volunteers would be educated about the open-door policy, and that immigration agents would not be allowed to enter shelters for raids or investigations.

With the storm rolling ever closer, and the authorities ordering people to flee, no letter came. The Red Cross issued a general restatement of its impartiality policy — after the hurricane passed.

The Red Cross argues, rightly, that it cannot keep law-enforcement officials from doing their jobs if they have legal warrants. But it does have an internal policy stating that officials without warrants are not allowed into its shelters. The workers’ center says that a simple public statement of that policy would have been enough to persuade its members to get on the bus. Instead, with mere hours to spare, more than a thousand people decided they could not take the chance of being picked up. Though short on money and access to cars, they cobbled together their own evacuations.

This storm, thankfully, did far less damage than Katrina. But other storms still loom, and thousands of scattered workers are still lying low. And the federal government and the Red Cross still lack what should be an ironclad public policy: that during all phases of a disaster, from evacuation to shelter to return, victims without papers need never be afraid of accepting life-saving help.





More photos from today’s DoJ rally

11 06 2008

Our friends from Jobs With Justice have posted some great photos from today’s rally on their photo site.





Workers’ statement on suspending hunger strike – ‘We have only begun to fight’

11 06 2008

“We Have Only Begun to Fight”

Collective statement by the Indian Workers’ Congress, read by Sabulal Vijayan

June 11, 2008

Today, after 29 days, we are suspending a hunger strike that has brought us more power than any group of H2B guest workers in the United States has ever had. We began our fast on May 14 in front of the White House to expose the ugly reality of the guest worker program. We demanded action against the criminal trafficking ring of Signal International and its US and Indian recruiters. We demanded that the Department of Justice grant us freedom from the terror of deportation and give us continued presence in the United States so that we can participate in the criminal trafficking investigation against Signal International.

Because of the power of our hunger strike, 18 members of US Congress have written to the Department of Justice to demand continued presence on our behalf. The chairs of two committees in the US House of Representatives have also urged the Department of Justice to take this case of human trafficking very seriously. Congressman Dennis Kucinich has committed to holding hearings into abuses of guest workers by Signal International and companies like it. Our allies from Jobs With Justice and the labor movement have written more than 9,000 letters to US Congress on our behalf.

We have the confidence to suspend our hunger strike today because we have faith in these allies to fight alongside us until the traffickers are brought to justice.

But our victory today is not yet complete. On March 6 we took courage in our hands and escaped Signal’s labor camps. We could have disappeared, but we chose to come forward to report the company to the US Department of Justice. We sacrificed our ability to work and be with our families for the sake of bringing Signal and its recruiters to justice. We risked our lives with a hunger strike for the sake of future workers.

Why did we do this? Because we thought we were in the land of liberty, because we had faith in the Department of Justice. We expected the DOJ to follow the laws that Congress has enacted to protect people like us. We demanded what the US law demands: that survivors of human trafficking be given the legal protections necessary to pursue justice without fear.

But the DOJ ignored us. They refused to act on our behalf. Our requests for basic protections under the law, for continued presence in the US, were ignored. We were subjected to surveillance operations by immigration authorities, and humiliating and terrifying interviews.

Because of the Department of Justice, our lives are on hold. We are paralysed. We live in constant terror of deportation. We cannot work. We cannot see our families. We cannot provide for our families. We are listening to our children grow up over long distance phone calls. We have not been able to attend the funerals of our mothers and fathers in India. Because of the DOJ’s inaction, our lives are in limbo.

Meanwhile Signal International is not on hold. Their business is not in limbo. They continue their operations in the Gulf Coast, they continue to get government contracts and make profits while we sit paralyzed. The Department of Justice lets a criminal trafficker carry on its business – while the workers who had the courage to report Signal crimes are treated like criminals.

But others are listening to our call for justice. Eighteen US Congressmen and three committee chairs have heard this call and supported us. Organized labor has heard this call and supported us. The civil rights community has heard this call and supported us. Faith leaders have heard this call and supported us.

We have faith in our allies and place our hopes in their hands. We believe that with the help of US Congress, organized labor, and civil rights and faith leaders, our power will continue to grow until the Department of Justice until it offers us the protection we need to bring the traffickers to justice and to protect all future workers.

So after 29 days we suspend our hunger strike – to give the Department of Justice time to wake up to the calls of 18 members of Congress, and leaders in the religious, civil rights, and faith community. We are waiting.





Day 29 – Hunger strike suspended after huge political gains

11 06 2008

Congressman Dennis Kucinich speaks before an audience of 150 workers and supporters today at the Department of Justice rally. Details here:

NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE

www.neworleansworkerjustice.org

*** JUNE 11, 2008 – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ***

Indian trafficking survivors suspend hunger strike on Day 29 after huge political gains

Workers celebrate support, vow to fight on as allies hold solidarity rallies in 10 US cities

WASHINGTON, DC – On Wednesday, June 11, 2008, about 150 Indian labor trafficking survivors and supporters rallied at the US Department of Justice headquarters, where the workers suspended their hunger strike on Day 29 after an unprecedented outpouring of support from US Congressmen and leaders from labor, civil rights, and religious communities.

“Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act because we recognized that modern day slavery exists and that workers trafficked into the United States should be able to place their faith in the United States justice system,” US Congressman Dennis Kucinich said at the rally, one week after he and 17 Congressional colleagues sent a letter to the Department of Justice urging legal protections for the workers while it investigates their case. “Today, we must make sure we don’t betray their faith in us.”

Indian Member of Parliament S.K. Kharventhan (Tamil Nadu, Congress Party) also pledged his support to the workers after flying from India to meet with them and attend the rally, saying: “This issue needs to be taken up as an international crime in India. I pledge my support to you. Meeting with you personally has opened my eyes to the seriousness of the problem and the fact that the Indian government should help you bring the traffickers to justice.”

“After 29 days, we are suspending a hunger strike that has brought us more power than any group of H2B guest workers in the United States has ever had,” said Sabulal Vijayan, an organizer with the Indian Workers’ Congress. “We have the confidence to suspend our hunger strike today because we have faith in these allies to fight alongside us until the traffickers are brought to justice.”

The vast support for the workers’ fight for justice against the labor trafficking chain of Signal International and its recruiters was clear from the speakers at Wednesday’s rally, which included:

  • US Congressman Dennis Kucinich
  • Indian Member of Parliament S.K. Kharventhan, Tamil Nadu, Congress Party
  • Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickeled and Dimed
  • Rev. Graylan Hagler, Senior Minister, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
  • Jon Hiatt, General Counsel, AFL-CIO
  • John Cavanagh, director, Institute of Policy Studies
  • John Flynn, President, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers
  • Sarita Gupta, Executive Director, Jobs With Justice
  • Indian Workers’ Congress organizer Sabulal Vijayan
  • Saket Soni, director, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice

In addition, labor rights group Jobs With Justice held solidarity actions in 10 cities across the US on Wednesday: Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Portland, OR; Knoxville, TN; Richmond, VA; Chicago, IL; Salt Lake City, UT; New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; and San Francisco, CA. Last week, Jobs With Justice members wrote over 9,000 letters to US Congress in support of the workers.

“But our victory today is not yet complete,” Vijayan added, referring to the Department of Justice’s failure to release the labor trafficking survivors from the terror of deportation by granting them continued presence in the US, as requested by Rep. Kucinich and his 17 colleagues.

We live in constant terror of deportation. We cannot work. We cannot see our families. We cannot provide for our families. We are listening to our children grow up over long distance phone calls. Because of the DOJ’s inaction, our lives are in limbo,” Vijayan said.

After the workers broke the fast in a ceremony blessed by Rev. Graylan Hagler and other faith leaders, a delegation of ten workers’ allies went into the Department of Justice and met with Constituent Relations Associate Director Julie Warren, who agreed to set a meeting between the workers and the DoJ Civil Rights Division for the week of June 16th.

“Scripture says: ‘Is this not the fast which I choose to loose the bonds of wickedness, and to let the oppressed go free?’” Rev. Hagland said, before he and other clergy distributed pieces of bread to the workers. “That is what we’re standing here to do, to loose the bonds of wickedness, and to let the oppressed go free.”

The hunger strike followed nearly 18 months of organizing by the workers, who paid US and Indian recruiters up to $20,000 apiece for false promises of permanent residency and green cards. Instead they received 10-month temporary H2B guest worker visas and worked at Signal’s Gulf Coast shipyards under deplorable conditions. A total of 20 workers participated in the strike, five of whom were hospitalized. One of them, Paul Konar, fasted for 23 straight days before being stopped by health problems.

The workers escaped Signal’s labor camps in March 2008 and made a 10-day “journey for justice,” largely on foot, from New Orleans to Washington, DC. They launched their hunger strike on May 14 to demand temporary legal status in the US, Congressional hearings into abuses of guest workers, and talks between the US and Indian governments to protect future guest workers.

“The Department of Justice, like the Indian government, has remained cold while these workers have taken extraordinary risks to open the world’s eyes to the reality of guest worker programs,” said Saket Soni, workers’ advocate and director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “This suspension of the hunger strike gives them both one last chance to fulfill their responsibility to combat the brutal reality of human trafficking.”

The Indian Workers’ Congress is an affiliate of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

Read statements and see pictures from the rally at our blog: nolaworkerscenter.wordpress.com.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, Media Director, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, spboykewich@gmail.com, US Mob. +1-504-655-0876

www.neworleansworkerjustice.org





Day 28 – Come to the rally — in any one of 11 cities!

10 06 2008

Tomorrow’s the big day. Over 100 workers will be rallying at the Department of Justice HQ in DC at noon, with hundreds of allies expected to come out in support of them, and a powerful list of speakers including:

  • Rep. Dennis Kucinich (schedule allowing)
  • Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickeled and Dimed
  • Jon Hiatt, AFL-CIO General Counsel
  • John Flynn, president, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers
  • John Cavanagh, director, Institute for Policy Studies
  • Rev. Sandra Harrelson, Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
  • Members of the Indian Workers Congress and Staff of New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice

What’s more, national allies from Jobs With Justice and other organizations will be holding solidarity actions in 10 US cities: Boston, MA; Portland, OR; Knoxville, TN; Richmond, VA; Chicago, IL; Salt Lake City, UT; New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; and San Francisco, CA.

If you live in one of these cities and want to come out and support the Indian workers’ fight for justice for all workers, call your local Jobs With Justice office to get details!