Tales of Sacrifice Dominate Guest Worker Trial

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – An Indian welder said he sold his wife’s jewelry and land on the promise of permanent residence in the U.S. during the first week of a trial highlighting the flaws in the national guest worker program.
     Sony Sulekha, a skilled welder, addressed the jury through an interpreter during over two days of testimony. He said he inquired about a job with Signal International after he saw an ad that said employees could receive permanent residency in the U.S. for themselves and their families. At the time – in 2006 – Sulekha said he was newly married, with a baby on the way, and that the prospect of being able to bring his family along was appealing.
     “I had two opportunities to work in other countries but my family couldn’t come,” Sulekha said.
     A copy of the flier was shown to the jury. It called for “welders, fitters, fabricators and marine engine fitters” and in larger block letters said “Migrate to USA.” In smaller letters below the flier said: “On green card/permanent residence visa in California/New Orleans” and “job guarantee provided for two to three years; earn from 4,000 to 5,000 US$ per month. Permanent lifetime settlement in USA for self and family.”
     Sulekha said in India he was “just getting by” financially. He earned less than the U.S. job was advertized for, and out of his wages he had to pay rent, the doctor bills for his pregnant wife and take care of his mother. After all that, Sulekha said he didn’t have much left for savings and he thought in America he “would have a better financial life and a better working life.”
     Sulekha said he answered the ad and attended a seminar at a hotel in another town where he and approximately 500 other interested workers were shown photographs of a beautiful job site and pretty accommodations.
     To be considered for the job, prospective workers needed to pay fees, Sulekha said. He didn’t have any money at the time, but that he thought “it was a very good opportunity” to work for Signal International and he asked his wife to pawn her jewelry at the bank. Sulekha said his wife also took out a loan and sold a small parcel of land to pay the fees necessary.
     In all, Sulekha paid more than $11,000 in fees and expenses to come to the United States and work for Signal international. Sulekha said it would take him years in India to make the amount of money he paid.
     “This was a large sum of money, but I had this expectation I could come [to America] and live with my family for this sum of money,” Sulekha said.
     Signal International acknowledges the Indian workers it hired came to the United States on their own money, and on the false promise of permanent residency, but it says the lies and unfair payments were the work of their lawyers and of “unscrupulous” third party recruiters working for their lawyers, such as Sachin Dewan and Michael Pol.
     Signal has brought cross claims against its lawyer and Dewan and Pol, saying they promised permanent visas without Signal’s knowing. Meanwhile, attorneys for plaintiffs say Signal continued working with their attorney and those same “unscrupulous” third party recruiters, even after the lawsuits began to pile up.
     Sulekha said he witnessed police close down one of the recruitment meetings where both Dewan and Pol were present, and he saw police tell Sachin Dewan to return fees collected from Indian workers who wanted to work for Signal International.
     Because police had stopped the meeting, Sulekha had to pay his fees later.
     During cross examination, Lance Rydberg, an attorney for Signal International, asked Sulekha why, if he’d seen police close down a meeting, he didn’t try to find out what was going on before he paid the fees.
     “You witnessed the police cause Dewan to return a fee payment that had been made, correct?” Rydberg asked.”Sachin called you to make a payment at a meeting exactly like the one that was shut down by police, and you never asked Sachin, ‘Why should I make a payment before my visa has been issued?’ did you?” Rydberg said.
     “No, I didn’t ask him,” Sulekha answered, “because in my country it’s a normal practice to give some money along with the passport for travel arrangements.”
     Sulekha acknowledged he had been afraid of Dewan from the start.
     “Why did you fear him?” Rydberg asked.
     “His office is located in Mumbai … Mumbai is a city where there are a lot of thugs and hooligans, so I was afraid like that,” said Sulekha.
     “You were fearful of Sachin Dewan on the day you contracted with him, correct?” asked Rydberg.
     “Definitely,” answered Sulekha.
     “So you signed a contract with somebody that you were afraid of,” said Rydberg.
     “Definitely.”
     “You were afraid of Sachin Dewan before then?”
     “Yes.”
     “You paid this man thousands of dollars who you were afraid of?”
     “Yes.”
     “You did that because that’s how badly you wanted to come to America, correct?” said Rydberg.
     At the end of direct examination, Sulekha answered questions about the events that precipitated the end of his employment at Signal’s Pascagoula, Miss. facility on March 11, 2007.
     On March 8, Signal officials had learned of the Indian workers’ consultation with attorneys over the horrid conditions at the “man camp” where they lived 24 men per trailer. The Indian workers were called together and told to think “very, very carefully about suing Signal.”
     The official told them: “We have lawyers too, very good lawyers … If we have to spend a lot of energy and effort fighting frivolous lawsuits … we won’t be doing any visa extensions or anything with Signal … this visa stint won’t be completed … and it ends July 31st. That’s not very far away.”
     Sulekha said from the official’s speech he understood that Signal was preparing to send the Indian workers home.
     “It troubled me a lot, troubled me and made me feel sad. I was thinking, if they are going to send me back home, then what am I doing?” Sulekha told the jury. “I had borrowed so much money and … I was thinking about my dear family, and I was sad and worried.”
     The next morning, Sulekha said he woke at around five a.m. to a “disturbing silence.”
     “Usually when I woke up,” Sulekha said, “I heard people walking, I heard people getting ready. But that morning when I woke up I heard none of those things.”
     He said he had started getting ready when he realized people were gathered outside the mess hall. Guards were there and had the names of about five people they were looking for.
     When the guards tried to take Sulekha’s coworker into custody, Sulekha said his coworker gave a reason why he needed to go back to his room and then slit his wrist.
     “He was cut and bleeding,” Sulekha recalled, “and was calling out and saying ‘I cannot go back to India …'”
     “While he was saying all these things, I was thinking of my own family, Sulekha said, wiping his eyes. “If they were to send me back, there wouldn’t be anyone for my family as well … I was really in shock, and I was in fear…”
     Sulekha said he never worked a day at Signal after that experience.
     This is the first of many trials Signal International faces in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi after class action certification was denied by a federal judge last year. Allegations are the company brought over as many as 500 Indian workers, took the workers’ money on the false promise they would become permanent U.S. residents and forced them to work at Signal’s Pascagoula’s shipyard, meanwhile living in a filthy, crowded “man camp.”
     The federal jury trial is overseen by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan and continues Tuesday. Trial is slated to last another four weeks.

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