NEW ORLEANS — When Sabulal Vijayan saw the advertisement in a newspaper in his native state of Kerala in southwestern India, he thought he had found the solution to his family's financial problems.
The ad offered laborers job opportunities in the U.S. Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina under a guest worker program.
Vijayan said the ads for Signal International, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Texas and Mississippi, promised welders and pipe fitters a 10-month work visa, followed by permanent U.S. residency. Good wages and comfortable accommodations also would be provided, Vijayan remembers the ad saying.
"It was my big dream to come to America," said Vijayan, 39, a pipe fitter.
So he used his life savings and money borrowed from relatives to pay $15,000 to people who identified themselves as Signal's recruiters. He was told this was "the price of coming to the U.S."
But when Vijayan arrived in Pascagoula, Miss., in December, the situation was not as advertised.
"We were like pigs in a cage," he said. His living quarters were cramped bunk houses where two dozen laborers shared two bathrooms.
Then the company cut the workers' wages from $1,850 a week to $1,350 or $950, depending on the position, Vijayan said. When he and other workers complained, they were fired without notice.
Vijayan had been issued a H-2B guest worker visa, which allows laborers into the country for certain non-agricultural jobs, typically for a year or less, and only once. An employer must secure the visa, and a laborer may not use it to work for another employer. Unlike the claims Vijayan said he read, workers are not guaranteed permanent residency after the term of their visa.
"I cannot go back to India because I cannot pay my debt," Vijayan said of the money he borrowed to pay recruiters.
He was so distraught that he recently slashed his wrist in a suicide attempt. His left arm is still bandaged.
On Tuesday, Vijayan joined other Indians and Mexicans who are members of the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity in a protest outside a U.S. Department of Labor office in New Orleans.
The workers wore enlarged photocopies of H-2B visas around their necks and delivered a letter to the agency demanding that U.S. officials investigate employers who exploit guest workers.
"We are exposing the reality of the H-2B visa," said Saket Soni, who heads the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. "We have people who are tricked and trafficked, and now they are trapped."
Ron Schnoor, Signal's Pascagoula-based senior vice president and general manager, said claims of workplace violations and abuse by his company were "absolutely a fabricated lie," generated by "disgruntled workers."
Schnoor said that at least 10% of the 300 Indian laborers his company hired on H-2B visas did not have the "first class" welding and fitting skills they claimed to have on their applications.
"They falsified their credentials," Schnoor said.
The company had to demote some workers to lower-paying jobs in line with their qualifications, he said, and fire unskilled laborers for whom alternate positions could not be found.
"There is no servitude here, or all the other horse crap that people are asserting," he said.
But advocates said guest workers were routinely unfairly docked wages, forced to live in squalor and denied benefits.
"Guest workers are usually poor people who are lured here by the promise of decent jobs, but all too often their dreams are based on lies," said Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. The group published a report this week on instances of abuse among the estimated 90,000 workers currently in the country on H-2B visas
"The guest worker program has created a band of quasi-criminal recruiters in Mexico and other countries, and they really wield enormous power over peoples' lives," she said.
Labor Department officials did not return calls seeking comment. But Schnoor said agency investigators last week inspected Signal workers' accommodations in Pascagoula, audited the company's books and checked its work visa compliance.
"We are fully compliant with U.S. law," Schnoor said.
Mexican welder Juan Jose Trejo Hernandez, 33, said he was promised a salary of $18 an hour to work a minimum of 40 hours a week in Westlake, La., for Louisiana Labor, the labor recruitment company that secured his work visa.
But since his arrival in January, Hernandez said, the company, owned by Matt Redd, a real estate entrepreneur in Sulphur, La., had reneged on promises to get the welders certified so they could begin work.
Instead, Hernandez and other Mexican workers said, Redd temporarily confiscated their passports and leased the workers out to other businesses, including a carwash and a garbage company.
The laborers say they were underpaid and fear they will return to Mexico empty-handed at the end of July when their visas expire.
Redd did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Nestor Vallerio, 22, said his hopes of earning enough money to finish college in Mexico and eventually opening an import-export business there had been dashed because the high-paying job he thought he would get with Louisiana Labor did not materialize.
Instead, he said, he was rented out to wash cars, bus restaurant tables and collect garbage -- work for which he was never fully paid.