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Marine Log

March 9, 2008

Indian Government responds to walk-out at Signal International

Signal International LLC is hitting the headlines--in the Indian media. And the Government of India is to look at how the company has been treating Indian guest workers.

Signal, which serves the offshore energy sector with six shipyards--two on the Mississippi coast and four on the upper Texas coast--has been trying to overcome the post-Katrina labor shortage by recruiting temporary guest workers from India on H2B visas.

On Thursday, March 6, about 100 Indian workers walked off their jobs at the company's Pacagoula, Miss. yard and held a press conference that appears to have been staged by the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. Saket Soni is the Lead Organizer of the center and served as the interpreter and main speaker at the press conference.

This latest protest comes a little under a year after a similar demonstration by Signal guest workers.

At this year's press conference, workers claimed that they were made fraudulent promises of green cards, had paid fees of $20,000 to come to the U.S. and faced retaliation when they attempted to organize. Other allegations included that workers "lived like pigs in a cage"and "24 to a room." You can read local TV station WLOX's coverage on the press conference here.

Signal International issued a written response to the protests in which it said it had spent $7 million on housing complexes for its H2B workers that contain galley and mess facilities fully catered with Indian cuisine, laundry and washing facilities, as well as recreational facilities with big screen televisions, pool tables and computers with internet access.

"Unfortunately, a few of the workers ... sponsored for H2B visas and recruited have made baseless and unfounded allegations against Signal concerning their employment and living conditions."

Signal says it "vehemently denies these allegations" and that its employment practices and facilities have been inspected by representatives of the Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of State. Signal has also invited journalists to inspect its housing complex. All of them have found that Signal's practices and facilities are fully compliant with the law and that its facilities are more than adequate and they all appear to have concluded that the complaints that they have received were without any foundation whatsoever."

Organizer Saket Soni apparently arrived in the U.S. some ten years ago to study theater. He appears to have put those studies to good use in organizing a dramatic march to the shipyard after the news conference that culminated in workers pitching their hard hats over the company fence.

Though the demonstration appears to have attracted only regional media attention in the U.S. it has received national coverage in India, with such headlines as "Indians treated 'like pigs' in U.S."

The coverage has provoked a response from the Indian Government.

The Hindustan Times reports that Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi has written to the Indian ambassador in Washington to investigate the matter.

"I've written to the ambassador," Ravi is quoted as saying. "I've also asked him to send a team of officials to the shipyard."

The Hindustan Times quotes Rahul Chhabra, Embassy of India spokesman in Washington, D.C, as saying: "We are ascertaining full details from our consulate in Houston, which is looking into the matter."

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