3/10/08 Hindustan Times – US dream lost in packed dorms, stink of stale food
March 10, 2008
US dream lost in packed dorms, stink of stale food
By Ginger Gibson, Hindustan Times
When Kurian David sold his home, he believed he was doing so to seek a better life in the US for him and his family. He was promised good wages, decent accommodation, a green card and permanent residency for him, his wife and two sons. He paid $20,000 (Rs 8 lakh) in exchange for a job at the Signal International shipyard in Orange, Texas.
The workers joined forces with the New Orleans Workers’ Racial Justice Coalition and the Southern Poverty Law Center and are trying to raise awareness about their plight – one they say included tricking them into paying large sums of money to come to the US where they were abused by their employers.When he arrived at the facility there was no opportunity for his dreams to come to fruition. Instead, he lived in a room with 23 other men, sleeping in bunk beds and sharing two bathrooms. David, 41, said he worked 10-hour days in the hull of a ship where he inhaled fumes and smoke. He was served stale bread for breakfast and forced to eat lunches left in the elements for hours.
When he and fellow workers at the plant complained, they were told they would be deported, a paralysing possibility because of the debt he incurred getting the job. “I decided to gamble everything,” David said. “We felt bonded. We felt like we were in prison. None the less, we ate their rotten food and stayed in their degrading conditions because they promised us green cards.”
David is one of about 120 workers brought to the US from India to work for Signal International in their two shipyards who walked off the job last week in protest. Signal issued a statement after the protest that stated the claims of the workers were false and that adequate living conditions had been provided.
Signal employees refused to allow media on to the site in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and would not comment further when contacted via telephone. Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, said about 100 workers from India remain at the Signal facilities.
The workers joined forces with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center and are trying to raise awareness about their plight – one they say included tricking them into paying large sums of money to come to the US where they were abused by their employers.
The workers and their lawyers say the workers are victims of human trafficking – tricked into a scheme and then abused and exploited with horrific work conditions.
The Pascagoula plant is located on the eastern side of the small Gulf Coast city that was damaged during Hurricane Katrina. Outside the gates, a small sign directs drivers to the “man camp,” the Signal-built bunkers where the workers were forced to live.
For many, the journey to the secluded compound began with a newspaper advertisement.
Rajan Pazhambalakode, 35, was on vacation from a job he held with British Petroleum in Russia. In Kerala, he saw an ad promising permanent residency in the US. Pazhambalakode said he contacted Sachin Dewan, and was told he must pay $20,000 within 10 days. “On December 5, 2006, I looked one last time at my house, and I sold it to arrange the money,” Pazhambalakode said. “My house was worth about $30,000, but I had to get a buyer that day.”
About 24 men crammed into a 36-foot by 24-foot rooms filled with bunk beds and only two bathrooms, David said. There were no changing areas, Pazhambalakode said. When he complained about a lack of chairs, the plant manager mocked them by demonstrating how they should jump onto the top bunks, sit to change clothes and jump down.
Since half the men worked during the day and the other half at night, Pazhambalakode said they were never allowed to turn the lights on in the rooms.
Signal deducted $35 a day for rent and food. David said some workers had asked to leave the property and find cheaper housing nearby, where they could cook. But Signal employees told them it wasn’t an option.
They were forbidden to have guests and had no means to leave the compound, David said. There were no phones, either.
There was one TV room for 50 men, said Hemant Khuttan, 27. And no other forms of entertainment. “We couldn’t sleep,” Khuttan said. “We couldn’t sit in our beds. We would spend our time lying there, thinking about how we got caught in this situation.”
Food came from the cafeteria, and purchasing or preparing food was not allowed. David said they were served stale bread and jam for breakfast. They packed lunch. When it was cold, he said, the food was like ice, and when it was hot, the food was rotten by lunch. “We had to sit in the garbage,” he said.
Pipe-fitting and welding requires crawling through small “cells” within the hull of the ship. David navigated through a maze of two-foot wide passageways in the bottom of the ship, 10 minutes from any assistance if something were to happen to him.
There he welded metal and glass, creating smoke and releasing carbon dioxide, he said. The cells were dark and the smoke made it impossible to see someone standing as close as three-feet away. David said they had to work 10-hour days, but only Indian workers would have to work multiple days a week in the worst conditions, others would do alternate days.
If they complained, Khuttan said, Signal employees told them they could return to India. However, most workers were in predicaments that prevented them from being able to return.
Because of the restrictions of their temporary visas, they were not permitted to seek employment from another company.
“That is why a lot of people decided to quit and run away,” he said.