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Indian Guestworker Slits Wrists After Being Fired for Complaining About Squalid Work Conditions

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Hundreds of guestworkers from India have begun protesting work conditions at a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, owned by the company Signal International. We hear from one Indian guestworker who tried to commit suicide after he was fired and told he was being shipped back to India after going public with his complaints. We also speak with a Mexican guestworker who says his Louisiana employer confiscated his passport and subjected him to humiliating conditions and treatment. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Hundreds of guestworkers from India have begun protesting conditions at a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, owned by the company Signal International. The men say they spent their life savings in order to get an H-2B visa to work in the United States. Last week, the men risked their jobs by publicly complaining about the working conditions. They held a press conference and issued a statement to the media.

AMY GOODMAN: The statement read in part: “We have been treated like animals here. We have been threatened with termination and salary reduction. We are living in isolation. Visitors are not allowed in the camps. We live 24 men in one container, with two bathrooms for all of us.” As the men were preparing to come public with their complaints, Signal told seven of the workers their jobs had been terminated and they would be sent back to India.

Freelance journalist Christian Roseland recently interviewed Sabu Lal, one of the fired workers. He asked him about the conditions at the shipyard.

SABU LAL: When I stepped into my man camp that is provided in the yard of Signal International, I just surprised that, because in my 20 years of experience, I didn’t dream of such a situation, because there is 24 peoples in a room, like I think it’s a pigs in a cage. 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.”

AMY GOODMAN: Sabu Lal, an Indian guestworker at Signal International. After publicly complaining about the work conditions, management told him and six other workers their jobs had been terminated, they’d be sent back to India. Upon hearing the news, Sabu Lal tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists.

SABU LAL: I get threatened. I get into the room, and I feel very bad. What to do and how to do? I forced to do something. I got a blade piece and cut my wrists, because I intentionally not done that, but the circumstances they forced me to do something. I have to escape that. And then I thought that I can escape like that by cutting my wrist. I was admitted in the hospital. After yesterday, I just sitting in the hospital at Pascagoula. And I lose everything. How I can go back to India? There is nothing. My family is waiting for me to fulfill their wishes by earning something from America. They are dreaming to come to America. These guys cheated me. From India, for ’til I come here, they cheated me, and family is cheated. And they are weeping for several days from this incident. And we could not go back. There is 288 peoples in the camp, in the Pascagoula camp, and there is more than 200 peoples in Texas that are in the same condition. And they cannot express this, because we are in a very pitiful condition there. The management is not going to know that, or not come to us to feel what we feel and what they deserve. They are treating us like slaves. And whenever we making some comments, they are saying that “Just shut your mouth.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sabu Lal, interviewed by freelance journalist Christian Roseland. Sabu Lal was fired from his job at Signal last week and is being deported to India, trying to commit suicide by cutting his wrists after hearing the news. We called Signal International and invited them on the program; they didn’t respond to our request.

Saket Soni now just joins us from New Orleans. He is the spokesperson for the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity. He heads the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

SAKET SONI: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Please explain the situation.

SAKET SONI: Well, in the case of Signal International, Signal is one of hundreds of employers that, after Katrina, has used the guestworker program to import cheap labor with the purpose of undercutting wages across the industry and subjecting workers to extraordinarily exploitative conditions.

The workers of Signal International all borrowed between $14,000 and $20,000 to come to the United States. They plunged their families into debt. “We’re drowned in debt,” as one worker told me. One worker, in fact, had his father lease his farm and become a tenant farmer on his own farm to raise the $15,000 to give to a labor recruiter to send his only son to the United States so that he could make enough money to send back to his family. These are all workers who, in situations of economic desperation, were vulnerable, and in a moment of vulnerability were recruited to come here. And once here, they found that every promise they were made was false. And because of the terms of their visa, they can now work for no one else.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Saket Soni, I’d like to ask you, again, as I asked a previous guest that we had on from the Southern Poverty Law Center, how do these contractors get to India and decide to start recruiting there? What is the process that occurs for this enormous movement of labor, recruitment of labor across huge distances in faraway countries?

SAKET SONI: Well, H-2B labor recruitment seems to have become a burgeoning industry after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Typically, employers will find a U.S. recruiter and then contract that U.S. recruiter to go in India or Mexico or Peru or Bolivia and find a local recruiter. That local recruiter then places ads aggressively, recruits, at times even knocks on doors in neighborhoods, to get men and women out to meetings where they are told about the beautiful H-2B program, the nice hotel they will be living in, the great job they will have, the thousands of dollars they’ll learn within three months. And then they come.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Mexican guestworkers in Louisiana labor, hired by Redd Properties in Sulphur, Louisiana, Saket Soni?

SAKET SONI: Yeah. Redd Properties is a real estate group owned by a local real estate mogul named Matt Redd. Matt Redd’s case is very interesting. Matt Redd went off and started Louisiana Labor, LLC, which is a little shelter company that is the formal employer of the workers.

Matt then went to Mexico. He, himself, became a recruiter. He went to Mexico, recruited workers, promised them that for $400 they would be transported to Louisiana in airplanes — charged them $400 for airfare. When he received the $400, he then packed the Mexican workers into vans like sardines and confiscated their passports and essentially trafficked them across the border to Louisiana.

Once they were in Louisiana, through LA Labor, they then lived in buildings owned by Redd Properties, sequestered, 10 or 12 people to a little house, and Matt Redd then leased them out for a profit to businesses across the Calcasieu Parish, including car washes, restaurants, casinos and a prominent local fabrication shop. So the workers essentially had no other choice.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re also joined now by Nestor Vallero, a Mexican guestworker. He’s a former employee of Louisiana Labor, LLC. Nestor, are you on the phone? I’m sorry, he’s in the studio. I’m sorry. Bienvenidos.

NESTOR VALLERO: [translated] Thank you so much.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Can you tell us a little bit about what happened with you?

NESTOR VALLERO: [translated] Yes, well, like all the other workers, I was cheated by a labor recruiter in Mexico. And he promised us a stable job, dignified housing and just working conditions, and a fair wage. When we got here, however — well, even before we crossed the border the lies became evident. They stole our passports. They only gave them to us to present to the immigration officials, but then they took them away again. Then we got to the apartments and, there, were crammed into rooms. They had said there would only be four people to an apartment, and they said that we’d have our own bathroom and everything. But the living conditions turned out to be deplorable.

Then we got to the work itself, and the whole panorama changed from what they told us. The majority of us were working in construction. When we got here, there was a whole week that we didn’t have work. And then, when we did get a job, we were told, “Oh, guess what? After all, there’s no work in construction.” So we ended up working in car washes, picking up trash, dishwashers, and similar menial jobs. The wage was very, very much lower than what we had been promised.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What were they paying you?

NESTOR VALLERO: [translated] They had told us that they promised $10 an hour, but it turned out when we got here they would only pay us $6.50 an hour. And they threatened us, and they said, “Well, if you don’t like it, you can go home.” And when we asked for our passports, they said, “Oh, you want your passport back? Well, I’m only going to give it to you if you’re going to go home.” After all of this, we were just forced to take whatever job they were offering us, because we didn’t have any money to go home or do anything else.

But that wasn’t all. They started to discount the cost of our housing from our wage. And we had to pay $1,200 a month for housing. And out of a $300 check that we received for two weeks work, they would take, discount almost $200 off that check. So, they’re really, you know, raking in the profits with our work. It’s really just a money-making scheme, this whole guestworkers program.

I think it’s time that we modify the laws. They need to be overhauled, because we’re not the only ones that are suffering from this. There are many, many people who are suffering this injustice. Here in New Orleans, many contractors are paying $13 or $10 an hour to do cleanup work from the Katrina disaster. However, the contractors have figured out that they can import people from other countries and pay them half that to do the cleanup work. So this is really a contradiction. And this is creating tensions, racial tensions between the African Americans who are local to New Orleans and the Latin Americans who are being imported to work here.

AMY GOODMAN: Nestor Vallero and Saket Soni, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion, and then we’re going to go to Canada to get an update on the 10-year-old boy whose story we broke last week, Kevin, who is in a prison facility named Hutto in Texas right now with his parents. And we’re going to talk to the Canadian lawyer who has some news, an update. Nestor Vallero is a Mexican guestworker; Saket Soni, spokesperson for Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity. They’re talking to us from PBS station WLAE in New Orleans. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We spoke with Matt Redd at Redd Properties in response to questions about the Mexican guestworkers. He declined to comment, saying only that he “didn’t want to stir it up any more than it’s already been stirred up.” He went on to say only 98 percent of his workers were happy as can be and that 3 percent were upset, no longer work there. He declined our invitation to join us on the broadcast. So I want to end this segment with Saket Soni at PBS station WLAE, the spokesperson for the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity. Can you say what needs to be done and respond to what the spokesperson for Redd Properties said?

SAKET SONI: Well, you know, it’s certainly untrue, patently untrue, that 98 percent of the workers are happy. The workers who work for Matt Redd pretty much feel the way workers across the Gulf Coast are feeling about the guestworker program. You know, there’s a restaurant in New Orleans, and in that single restaurant in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 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. Those H-2B visa holders paid $10,000 to come to New Orleans to chop vegetables, and they were told that if they ever stop chopping, the employer would call Immigration. Guestworkers know that they’re at the bottom of the race to the bottom in the Gulf Coast. The workers who work for Matt Redd feel no different.

AMY GOODMAN: Saket Soni, I want to thank you very much for joining us, as well I want to thank Nestor Vallero, the Mexican guestworker who joined us, as well, and thank WLAE, the PBS station in New Orleans, for hosting you. We will certainly continue to follow this story.

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