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Guestworkers Are Not Slaves

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November 18, 2008

No matter where you fall on the immigrant worker issue, most people would agree that all workers — no matter where they’re from — shouldn’t be abused or cheated and should be paid the promised wage for their labor.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for hundreds of guestworkers from India who were trafficked into the U.S. through our government’s H-2B guestworker program. Recruited to perform marine fabrication work (like welding and pipe-fitting) for Signal International shipyards in Mississippi and Texas after Hurricane Katrina, more than 500 men arrived from India with assurances of becoming lawful permanent residents.

But when they arrived, they were forced to live up to 24 men in one trailer in Signal’s overcrowded and squalid labor camps, subjected to psychological abuse and defrauded out of adequate payment for their work.

Yesterday, the ACLU and the law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP joined a lawsuit against Signal and its recruiters charging that they defrauded these workers by making false promises to get them here, and once here, exploited their immigration status by subjecting them to psychological coercion, threats of serious harm and physical restraint. From the complaint:

Lured by Defendants’ fraudulent promises of legal and permanent work-based immigration to the United States for themselves and their families, Plaintiffs and other class members plunged themselves and their families into debt to take advantage of these seemingly promising opportunities. Plaintiffs and other class members took out substantial loans, liquidated their life savings, and sold their family homes and valued possessions to pay mandatory recruitment, immigration processing, and travel fees charged by Defendants totaling as much as $20,000 per worker. Trusting in the veracity of the immigration and work benefits promised by Defendants, Plaintiffs and other class members further relinquished stable employment opportunities in India and as guestworkers in the Persian Gulf.

That promise of permanent resident status? That was just an outright falsehood.

To make matters worse, the federal government has consistently failed to stand up for the rights of guestworkers, who should be protected by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (PDF), which defends the human rights of victims of contemporary slavery and trafficking. Additionally, the federal government is obligated to protect guestworkers and all immigrant workers and vulnerable workers as a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

“Trafficking immigrants to perform forced labor for little to no pay under the guise of a guestworker program amounts to involuntary servitude,” says ACLU staff attorney Chandra Bhatnagar, co-counsel in the case.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen slavery, alive and well in present-day America. But we hope a spotlight on abusive practices will draw attention to this issue and end this exploitation nationwide. The plaintiffs in this case have been involved in a courageous public campaign to combat trafficking and exploitation of guestworkers. For more information about the campaign, check out the website of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

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