Indian Workers Accuse Signal International Of "Human Trafficking"

PASCAGOULA (WLOX) -- About 100 Indian workers walked off their jobs at Signal International, a Pascagoula shipyard Thursday.

They talk of broken promises and shattered dreams. The Indian workers came to America for job opportunity. They now face the risk of being deported after quitting their jobs at Signal and accusing the company of illegal "human trafficking."

Saket Soni is with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. He served as interpreter at a Thursday morning news conference, and spoke on behalf of the former employees.

"Were made fraudulent promises. Paid $20,000 to come here. We're promised green cards, found that all the promises were false. And when they started to organize, they faced retaliation," he explained.

Many of the workers voiced these concerns one year ago. Sabulal Vijayan was fired then after trying to organize his fellow employees. Facing deportation, he took drastic action.

"I slit my wrists to kill myself. There was no other option for me. I didn't know what I was doing. The situation forced me to do so. I was in a horrible situation. Signal was retaliating against me for organizing my people for our rights," he told the group of fellow workers and visiting media.

They talk of living "like pigs in a cage" in a company-run "work camp."

"I've been a guest worker all my life. I've never seen these kinds of conditions," said the interpreter, "We lived 24 people to a room. And for this, the company deducted $1,050 a month from our paychecks."

The nearly 100 workers marched outside the gates of their former employer.

They sang the protest song, "We Shall Overcome" in their native language. Then, in a symbol of resistance, workers tossed off their hard hats.

The workers say they took this action not just for themselves, but to prevent future Indian workers from facing similar circumstances. As one worker put it, "We want the people who come after us not to suffer the same fate."

The former employees face an uncertain future. But, they say, demanding dignity was the right decision.

"The workers are coming out of the company to declare their freedom. We need freedom in this country. I am a human being. That is my message," said Vijayan.

Signal International strongly denies all the allegations. The company issued a news release in response to Thursday's demonstration.

That news release explains how the "baseless and unfounded" allegations are coming from just a few of the company's Indian workers.

It also explains that the company's facilities and labor practices have already been inspected and approved by both the Department of Labor and the federal Immigration and Customs division.

As for the workers who walked off the job, they are staying temporarily in New Orleans. They are hoping the federal Department of Justice will launch an investigation into their concerns.