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Sold an American Dream, these workers from India wound up living a nightmare

These workers were promised green cards following Hurricane Katrina. Instead they were issued temporary visas that bound them to a single employer.
Courtesy of Ted Quant
These workers were promised green cards following Hurricane Katrina. Instead they were issued temporary visas that bound them to a single employer.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, hundreds of welders and pipefitters were recruited from India to come to the Gulf Coast to repair oil rigs. But when they arrived in the U.S., it was nothing like what they were promised.

Labor organizer Saket Soni first heard about the situation when he received a midnight phone call from an Indian man who was too frightened to give his name. Soni is founder and director of Resilience Force, a nonprofit that advocates for workers who rebuild communities after weather disasters. He was used to fielding dozens of calls a day from workers who needed help, but this was the first Indian worker he'd ever heard from.

"I thought, 'What was an Indian worker doing in the Mississippi Gulf Coast?'" Soni recalls. "What I discovered was that he was one of 500 Indian laborers who had been lured to the U.S. on promises of good work and green cards."

The men had been convinced to pay $20,000 each — an enormous sum in India — to come to the U.S. to rebuild storm-damaged oil rigs. But instead of receiving green cards, they were issued temporary H-2B visas that bound them to a single employer. That employer — Signal International — forced them to work round-the-clock shifts and to live squalid work camps, where they were fed frozen rice and moldy bread.

"This was an international conspiracy spanning from Mumbai to Mississippi," Soni says. "They were sold an American Dream but dropped into an American nightmare."

Over the course of many months, Soni and the men developed a plan for the workers to flee their camp and get the Justice Department to charge their employer with human trafficking. In his new book, The Great Escape, Soni tells the story of that daring campaign, which included a march to from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., and years of hardship and legal wrangling before the workers finally got their day in court.

"Eventually, the jury found that the company, the attorney in New Orleans and the Indian labor recruiter had committed forced labor and trafficking and mail fraud and wire fraud and a number of other things. The jury awarded [the] plaintiffs millions of dollars in damages," Soni says. "And maybe the most extraordinary part of this was that ... the CEO of the company issued an apology. It wasn't everything the workers wanted, but it was an apology for how the workers were treated."

Interview highlights

/ Algonquin Books
Algonquin Books

On the living conditions in the labor camp in Pascagoula, Miss.

Conditions were atrocious. There were no apartments, there were no decent living quarters. The men lived 24 to a single trailer in a company "man camp" — that was actually what the company called it. And this "man camp" was built above a toxic waste dump. ...

They could come in and out of the labor camp. Usually they were taken on chaperoned visits where they were surveilled by a company official, put in a company van, taken to Walmart to buy groceries and other things and [brought] back to the camp. They were heavily surveilled. And while they were theoretically allowed in and out, they could never do it without a company official with them. The more important thing was their fear of deportation kept them in the camp. For some amount of time, they were in the camp legally and on these legal visas, but after a certain time, their visas lapsed. But the company kept using them on these 24-hour shifts that they would rotate on, the day shift and the night shift. And they couldn't leave the labor camp because of their own fear that they would be picked up and deported if anyone discovered that they were now undocumented.

On how the workers were charged rent to live in squalid conditions

The senior vice president who had the idea to build the labor camps thought that workers would be only too happy to get up, roll out of bed and be able to walk to work. This is a man who had never been to India, but somehow he thought that compared to conditions in India, these workers would be "happy campers." That's the way he put it. The company ended up charging the workers enormous amounts of money deducted from their paychecks to pay for the millions of dollars it took to construct the labor camps: $1,000 a month.

On the so-called "Great Escape"

The night before the Great Escape, the guards were in their usual place, confident that the next day would be like every other day. Company officials were sleeping tight, unaware that anything was afoot, but workers were slowly streaming out of the labor camp. They were doing it quietly. ... In exchange for flavored cigars and small little bottles of bourbon, [guards would] let workers go out and have their night on the town. Meanwhile, there was a hotel owner who believed that he was hosting a large wedding, that we'd rented out the hotel to carry out a large Indian wedding. In fact, we were cramming the ballroom of this Pascagoula, [Miss.] hotel for a mass meeting, the biggest mass meeting yet. ...

The men would [then] march back to the company gates [after] having escaped. And that's exactly what we did. We got to the company gates, hundreds of workers, the workers were chanting, the press was there. And the men, in an extraordinary moment, took their hardhats and threw them up in the air over the gates of the company in a symbolic show that they no longer wanted to work for this oil rig welder. We then got word that police was on its way and clambered into buses and drove to New Orleans, where we hid out in a New Orleans hotel.

On the workers marching from New Orleans to D.C.

The men marched from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., intending to confront the Department of Justice.
Courtesy of Ted Quant / Workman
The men marched from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., intending to confront the Department of Justice.

Hearing no word from the Department of Justice, we decided to march from New Orleans to D.C. to confront them directly. There were beautiful scenes of these men marching along highways through Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia. They were holding signs that said "dignity" and "I am a man." And they were sometimes jeered or pelted by bottles from passing cars, but that only spurred their faith. They really believed that as soon as they got to D.C., they'd be vindicated by what they called the Department for Justice. What could go wrong?

On the 2015 civil suit against the company

The trial was a massive undertaking. The company had disclosed more than two and a half million documents during discovery. Depositions took hundreds of hours. The attorney at the center of the case, his deposition alone was five days. And the company's legal team basically brought a kitchen-sink approach to its defense. It argued that our entire campaign was a nefarious plot by a political hitman — me — to bring down the government's H-2B visa program. It presented its own Indian workforce as a happy family. They talked about a company cricket match they held where a raffle ticket holder got a new TV. And the company's lead attorney really framed the leaders of the campaign, the characters in my book, as noisy malcontents, people who were just not living in the real world and should be grateful for what came to them. That was the company's strategy.

The jury didn't really buy it. Worker after worker in the trial hit back against the company's defense, and really they did an extraordinary, courageous job of holding their own. The workers' testimony, in fact, was devastating for the defendants.

On why many immigrant workers don't come forward when they're exploited

These are the people who rebuild America after hurricanes, floods and fires. They're overwhelmingly immigrant workers. Many, many of them are undocumented. And they're doing the crucial work that let us come home after extreme weather events.

These Indian workers were among the first in a rising workforce that we call "the resilience workforce." These are the people who rebuild America after hurricanes, floods and fires. They're overwhelmingly immigrant workers. Many, many of them are undocumented. And they're doing the crucial work that lets us come home after extreme weather events. ...

What I've seen is that across the board, immigrant workers are afraid to come forward and report abuse even when they're forced to work in the rain and might fall off a roof. Even when workers are not paid for weeks. They're afraid to come forward because complaining to the authorities could lead to deportation. Contractors, employers could come in and hand them over to law enforcement. That's what workers are largely afraid of. The workers who do rebuilding and repair work after climate disasters are living in their cars. They're waking up in the morning in Home Depot parking lots. They're climbing up on roofs and doing extraordinarily difficult work in the hot sun. ... And they face many of the same issues that immigrant workers in the U.S. face across the board, you know, abuse, exploitation, nonpayment of wages and conditions that in some cases do rise to the legal level of forced labor.

Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced a nd edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.