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“Slave-like conditions in U.S. labour camp”

G. Anand

Mumbai-based recruitment firm deceived us: Kerala workers

We are victims of human trafficking racket: workers

Over 100 Indian workers fighting

for basic rights

Thiruvananthapuram: Allegedly deceived by a Mumbai-based recruitment firm, at least 400 skilled workers from Kerala had to endure two years of “slave-like” conditions in a labour camp of a major shipbuilding company in the U.S.

The workers, most of them pipe fitters and welders, had to sell their houses or raise heavy loans to pay the visa amount demanded by the recruiter. Their families were in deep debt and one of the workers even attempted suicide in the U.S., it is alleged.

Over 100 Indian workers have now quit the company and are fighting for their basic rights with the help of a U.S.-based human rights organisation, the New Orleans Workers’ Centre for Racial Justice.

Alleging that they were victims of an international human trafficking racket, the workers staged a demonstration before the company’s office in Mississippi this week.

David Kurien, one of the protesters, told The Hindu over telephone from New Orleans that 85 per cent of the 600 workers recruited by the Mumbai firm were Malayalis.

Many of them did not want their families to know about their plight. Some were afraid of possible ridicule at home for staking everything they owned for realising their American dream.

Church to the rescue

The Church in New Orleans had helped the workers get in touch with the human rights organisation. Mr. Kurien said he, like many others, paid the recruitment firm Rs.10 lakh for the job and permanent resident status (green card) in the U.S.

Mr. Kurien, who hails from Kochi, was working in the Gulf when he saw newspaper advertisements from the recruitment firm.

He realised he was cheated when he reached the U.S. in 2006. He had been issued a H2B visa, which had only a 10-month validity. The visa, issued to “guest workers,” also bound him to the terms set by his employer.

Mr. Kurien said that for two years he had shared a 28-squaremetre room with 25 others. “If one of us caught fever, every one else had it in no time.” The workers had no access to healthcare and had to spend for medicines from their own pocket.

Food was bad and toilet facilities were inadequate. “To report for work at 6 a.m., I had to stand in queue before the toilet at least by 4 a.m. There were only two toilets for 30 people,” he said.

On most days there was no work on account of poor weather. When there was no work, there was no pay.

The company charged each worker Rs. 1,500 every day for frugal rice-based meals. The food lacked protein, which was essential for surviving in the cold clime, he said.

The “shabby mess” was run by “illegal immigrants” from Goa. When workers complained about the food, a company official said the fare “was good enough for Indians.”

Workers were discouraged from leaving the camp and no visitors were allowed. When an Indian consulate official visited the workers, the company said those who made any complaint would be deported.

Mr. Kurien said most debt-trapped workers remained silent for fear of losing their jobs. The company officials made the workers sign several documents without giving them a chance to read them.

The situation was so despairing that many workers contemplated suicide, while one slashed his wrists. The conditions in the camp were “jail like and there was no freedom,” he said.

Human rights activists have put up the workers in a hotel. Most of them fear that U.S. authorities will arrest them on the charge of overstaying. Mr. Kurien said the Mumbai-based firm was still recruiting Indian workers for the U.S. company.

Relatives’ plight

Meanwhile, relatives of the victims of the alleged U.S human trafficking racket are facing hard times in Kerala. With their income source drying up, many are under the threat of losing everything they own.

Sibi Kurien, who lives in Kochi, told The Hindu that his brother David Kurien had sold his house and his wife Silvi’s jewellery to raise the visa amount.

Silvi said she was not able to repay loans because her husband was finding it increasingly difficult to send money home.

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