Witnesses Focus on Fear|at Forced Labor Trial

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – In India, debt may lead to public humiliation or even death, an expert testified Friday in a trial over Indian workers’ claims they sacrificed nearly all for what turned out to be bogus promises of permanent residency in the U.S.
     In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, Signal International recruited workers from India to make and repair oil tankers. In all, nearly 600 Indian workers were put to work at Signal’s plants in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas.
     Two years later, the workers began filing the first of more than a dozen lawsuits alleging they paid huge deposits and hefty travel expenses to work for Signal , and were promised green cards in exchange. Instead of permanent residency, the workers said they found themselves confined in a crowded, unsanitary camp, living under the shadow of threats their complaints would send them back home.
     Wrapping up testimony on behalf of the Indian workers Friday, Amy Mowl, an expert in Indian debt collection practices, testified that loans in India are typically short-term and are subject to barbarous collection tactics that would be illegal in the U.S., including disfigurement and death.
     “Violent acts are typically committed publicly, as a symbol for everyone: this is what happens when you don’t pay,” Mowl said. “It can be quite shocking. Early violence is usually shocking – lots of slapping on the head and the face; slapping wives on the face.” Mowl said.
     What comes next for debtors is much worse, the expert continued. For men, it could be death, and for women, possibly disfigurement.
     Indian workers testified earlier about their fear of being sent back to India, and of the shame and humiliation they and their families would face if Signal International officials carried out threats to send them home due to their complaints.
     One worker testified he tried to kill himself when he realized he would be sent back to India for complaining of the horrid circumstances at Signal’s “man camp,” where he shared one trailer with 23 other men.
     Another worker, Sony Sulekha, cried as he spoke of the shame he believed it would cause his family if he was sent back.
     “I had borrowed so much money,” Sulekha said as he wept.
     Sulekha testified that he sold wife’s jewelry and her property, before she ultimately took out a high interest loan to help him pay the exorbitant fees necessary to take the job for Signal. He said the amount of money he collected from her in all would have taken “many years to earn” as a worker in India. But Signal had promised him permanent residency and a job with great pay and even a beautiful job site to work at.
     Amy Mowl Friday said in India it is typical for interest on loans to be as high as 30 percent, and that most people can only afford to pay the interest and have to find another large sum of money to repay the loan itself.
     Mowl said debt collectors use a system: on their first attempt to collect, they call the debtor and ask for their money; on the second attempt, a debt collector will show up at the debtor’s front door; the third attempt to collect on a debt is typically meant to publicly embarrass the debtor.
     “Making it as painful as possible,” is the debt collector’s aim, Mowl said.
     Mowl said it is typical for debt collectors to begin their collection efforts by taking a woman’s cooking stove.
     “Now the woman has to go to her neighbor’s house to cook, and now the whole neighborhood knows they have a debt,” Mowl said.
     She said debt collectors usually do anything they can to get money as fast as they can.
     Signal International acknowledges the Indiana workers it hired came to the U.S. on their own money, and on the false promise of permanent residency, but says the lies and money collected were the work of their lawyers and of “unscrupulous” third party recruiters working for their lawyers.
     Signal has brought cross claims against its lawyer and the third party recruiters, 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.
     Also Friday, an immigration attorney testified that in 2006, when the workers were brought to the United States, Signal would have known there was no chance the workers could stay.
     Testimony on behalf of Signal begins today (Monday) with Signal CEO, Dick Marler. The federal jury trial is slated to last another three weeks.

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