Virtual Slave Labor for Indian Workers at Oklahoma Pickle Plant : LUSENET : Exposing Rightwing Corruption : One Thread

Virtual Slave Labor for Indian Workers at Oklahoma Pickle Plant

Russell Cobb,

June 12, 2002


They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They live on rice and beans, the businessmen said. They wouldn't know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny -- deport them ... -- John Steinbeck, "The Grapes of Wrath" It takes "an effort of the intellect and the will" just to recognize that the poor exist in America, writer Michael Harrington once remarked. Harrington's 1962 book, "The Other America," introduced many Americans to the overlooked poverty in their midst. Indeed, the most desperate people in the most affluent society on Earth are often kept out of view, no less now than when "The Other America" was published.

A recent example comes straight from the American heartland -- Tulsa, Oklahoma -- where 53 Indian men spent months working under conditions that their attorneys have called "virtual slave labor." Their employer was the John Pickle Company, a manufacturer of oil pipelines and pressure vessels on the desolate western limits of town.

Although each worker tells a unique story of broken dreams and humiliation at the Pickle plant, the collective experience of the men goes like this: Lured away from good jobs in India for a chance to work at the Pickle Company, the men were ill fed, packed into a cramped, unsanitary dormitory only yards away from industrial machinery, and forced to work 12- to 16-hour days, six days a week, at wages well below the federal minimum wage. When they complained about conditions within the factory, they were threatened with deportation, locked inside their barracks and patrolled by armed guards.

While the men wait for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to decide their immigration status, many people in Oklahoma are beginning to ask how slave-like conditions could develop right under their noses.

The American Dream Turned Nightmare

Toofan Mondal, one of two cooks in the group, had worked for 20 years as a chef in Calcutta, supporting a family and struggling to make ends meet. Then he heard about job openings at the John Pickle Company through an agent with Al-Samit International, a travel agent and employment recruiter based in Bombay. The Indian workers don't know much about the management of Al-Samit, nor do their two American attorneys, or anyone in the United States, including the FBI, which has purportedly been in India investigating the company. Pickle Company documents -- including emails and employment contracts -- refer only to a "Mr. Gulam" as company president.

"No one seems to know Gulam's last name," one of the Indian men's attorneys, Kent Felty, told me in a telephone interview. "All we know at this point is that he is powerful, rich, Muslim, and a very big man, well-connected with the Indian Consulate in Houston."

FBI Special Agent Gary Johnson would not provide details on the Bureau's investigation of either Al-Samit or the Pickle Company, except to say that "several government agencies," including "the INS and the Department of Labor" were looking into the men's allegations. The Pickle Company denies any wrongdoing.

"What happened at the Pickle Company is starting to happen everywhere -- especially in remote areas of the heartland."

But even as the government refrains from commenting, the men's sworn testimonies and the Pickle Company's own documents paint a picture of human trafficking and exploitation that is usually associated with foreign-operated sweatshops in the developing world. People following the new wave of Central American and South Asian immigrants to the American South and Midwest, however, are beginning to note abuses throughout the region.

"What happened at the Pickle Company is starting to happen everywhere -- especially in remote areas of the heartland," says Barbara Moore, Director of the Asian-American Community Service Association in Tulsa. Moore cited the booming big-poultry industry in nearby Arkansas and the migrant farm worker experience throughout the Midwest as areas where labor abuses have become more common in recent years.

Al-Samit began recruiting Indian workers for Pickle two years ago, selecting qualified welders, electricians, and fitters for a so-called "training program." When Toofan Mondal met the Al-Samit agent, she told him that Pickle was expanding his guest worker program and would be taking two cooks with him for the first time. All the workers Al-Samit recruited for Pickle were experienced -- many were over-qualified -- and they were told they would receive H1-B temporary work visas for skilled workers.

For its services as an intermediary, Al-Samit charged each worker roughly $2,500 in fees, which most of the men paid through high-interest loans in India. The men planned to work off their debt to Al-Samit and then begin sending money home to their families.

Upon boarding the plane to the United States, however, it was revealed that they actually had been issued B-1 visas for temporary business visits. Pickle may have preferred this approach because it would give him the option of either returning the workers to India after six months or sending them on to his new plant in Kuwait.

According to social workers and attorneys involved in the case, there was another advantage for Pickle in securing B-1 visas for business visits: doing so allowed Pickle to bypass an important INS prerequisite for the H1-B.

"For Pickle to employ the men, he first would have had to prove to the INS that there was a shortage of welders in Tulsa," said Moore in an interview. Instead, "the men were technically employees of Al-Samit. But there was not a fašade of training at the plant -- they were paid Indian wages by an Indian firm."

These wages were far below the federal hourly minimum wage of $5.15 -- the Tulsa World and the Associated Press reported that the welders received between $2.31 and $3.17 an hour. Their actual wages may have been even worse -- according to their offer letter from Al-Samit and the Pickle Company, the welders received a $500 to $550 monthly salary. Since the men report 12- to 16-hour workdays six days a week, that means their hourly wage was more like $1.20 to $1.76 an hour.

The technical trades of welding and vessel fitting in the petroleum industry are well-established in Tulsa and have been ever since the town's halcyon days in the 1920s, when Tulsa was the self-proclaimed "Oil Capital of the World." For Pickle to prove to the INS that there was a shortage of skilled workers in a city and state whose economic lifeline still runs, for better or worse, in black gold, would have been difficult. But by claiming the workers were business visitors in a training program, Pickle had found a way around potential INS roadblocks to cheap labor.

John Pickle was openly proud of his operation until only recently.

According to a letter he wrote to "customers, suppliers and business partners" on February 8, Pickle claimed to have already completed "two cycles of training ... with 25 individuals now successfully on the job at JPME [his Kuwait plant]." After years of struggling to find cheap, reliable labor in Oklahoma, he had found a way to undercut his competitors without closing up shop and moving overseas. In a 1997 interview with the Tulsa World, Pickle admitted his frustration at not being able to attract and keep workers. "I train them [the welders] and then they go somewhere else for the bigger money," he said. Pickle, in other words, believed he was being a good American businessman by keeping costs low. Furthermore, he believed he was doing the local economy a favor. During the oil bust of the 1980's, he claimed, he could have shipped his entire operation to the Middle East, "where most of the oil action is," but he chose to stick it out in Tulsa, where the economy had ground to a halt.

While still in Calcutta, Mondal was excited about the opportunity to go to America, and this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Like the other 52 men, Mondal was offered free food, travel, accommodation, and medical insurance. Granted, the pay would be low by American standards -- $900 a month would supposedly be his base salary -- but there would be overtime and frequent raises. There were promised fringe benefits as well: Pickle would provide a car for every four employees, a cell phone for every two employees, and everyone would live in American-style apartments with a swimming pool. Mondal's statements, made in a sworn affidavit, were corroborated in separate interviews I conducted with five other workers. Neither the Pickle Company nor its attorney responded to my requests for comment.

It didn't take long for Mondal's dream to turn into a nightmare.

Upon arriving in Tulsa, John Pickle's wife, Christina, seized the men's passports and visas. The first 30 men to arrive were transported to a makeshift dormitory located between the factory and the office. It had facilities for 10 men, according to Mondal.

Pickle then quickly put the men to work constructing a new dormitory within the factory complex itself, an ominous, bleak compound that covers over 60 acres in a run down area of Tulsa. That dorm would eventually house all 53 workers. According to Mondal's affidavit and my interview with another worker, A.K. Shaji, the new kitchen was constructed dangerously close to industrial equipment and radiation-emitting X-ray machines, which they blame for making many of the men ill. When Mondal complained about having inadequate utensils for cooking, Pickle instructed the men to weld a vat out of stainless steel from the factory.

Negligence and Threats Escalate

Pickle took a hands-on approach to every aspect of the men's lives. When one of the welders, Marshall Suares, dropped a 35-pound steel spool on his toe, Pickle and his wife brought him over-the-counter medicines instead of taking him to a hospital to have the toe X-rayed. Suares is still receiving treatment for the injury.

Mondal claims that at one point he became so sick that an American worker at the factory offered to take him to a doctor, but that Pickle stopped them. "You want to go to a doctor?" Mondal says Pickle asked. "I am your doctor."

Meanwhile, the welders and vessel fitters were working long hours for a pittance -- all the while being charged $50 per month for their board. They worked diligently and ahead of schedule. The local workers -- there were anywhere from 15 to 30 at the factory when the Indians arrived, according to Moore and the Indians -- were soon laid off. Yet even as the workers completed their tasks to Pickle's specifications, conditions in the dormitory deteriorated.

"Mr. Pickle began to ration the food," Mondal states. "Only one small glass of milk was to be given every three days." In early November, Mondal noted that many men were losing weight and refusing to eat the food, often bought after its expiration date. In every conversation I had with the men, food was a recurring topic.

"We went to the supermarket and I put a bag of rice in the cart and Pickle took it out and said 'that one's too expensive.' He grabbed another one and put it in the cart. It was 50 cents cheaper," Shaji told me. Pickle then refused to buy spices and finally decided that the men would eat only beans. "Indian men were not used to beans. I asked for mutton. Pickle began to curse at me," writes Mondal.

As conditions worsened and the men grew desperate, Pickle began to threaten them with deportation. His temper grew shorter and he began to call frequent meetings between the workers and management. Pickle and other managers shouted at and insulted the men. After some of the men requested permission to leave the factory on their day off to go to church, Pickle became enraged.

"He said, 'you son of a bitch, you go back to India,'" Shaji recalled to me, stuttering to articulate the unfamiliar, shameful words.

Ray Murzello, the Pickle Company's director of international business development, was especially harsh with the men. On December 14, he sent an email to an Al-Samit official in Mumbai in which he proposed that the mysterious Gulam "put pressure on the families" in India.

"Knowing Gulam as well as I do," Murzello continued, "if this fails ... Gulam has further recourse and can file a case quickly against these individuals with the Mumbai police."

Murzello was especially worried since two men he had sent to the Tulsa airport accompanied by armed guards to be deported back to India had "absconded" in Atlanta. Murzello seemed particularly worried about the two missing men, whom he was afraid might "be the reason why we sour our relations with the U.S. embassies and INS, so assiduously cultivated over the last several years."

In his email, Murzello laments that "we cannot send them (the men, that is) airfreight or FedEx, which would assure a quick, guaranteed delivery!" The John Pickle Company, Murzello said, would "provide the cuffs" for someone to escort them back to India.

According to Mondal's statements and my interview with Shaji, Gulam then responded to Murzello's requests by making a conference call to some of the Pickle workers at the plant, threatening to "put them in a dark room and cut off their legs" when they were returned.

According to Joe McDoulett, the Indian men's attorney working on the immigration side of their case, the Pickle Company never had the authority to "deport" the men in the first place.

"When you enter the United States as an alien, you're under the control of the INS. You get permission to stay for a period of time. Being outside of the control of the John Pickle Company doesn't make you subject to deportation," McDoulett said in a telephone interview.

McDoulett has filed suit on behalf of the men to change their visa status to a "T visa," which is given to victims of human trafficking and would extend their work permit for a three-year period. According to Mondal's statements, the INS never even questioned the men about their work or place of residence when they arrived in Atlanta from India.

"Mr. Pickle led the way. Mr. Pickle spoke to a tall official who directed us to form two lines. The immigration officer in my line did not ask me anything," Mondal states.

So where was the INS when Pickle was importing his laborers?

"They were looking for people who were coming to blow up buildings," said Kent Felty, the men's attorney who is pursuing a civil case against the company. "The FBI is totally swamped and the INS is even worse."

It is worth noting that Pickle was able to easily transport the 53 men through immigration in Atlanta only weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks without so much as a peep from immigration officials. Ironically, while U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was swiftly rounding up immigrants and suspending their habeas corpus, Pickle was able to restrict his workers' movements -- even locking them in the factory barracks over Thanksgiving and Christmas. He frequently used the terrorist attacks as a pretext, claiming that it was for their own good that they stay in the factory.

"He said we would be shot if we left the grounds," Shaji said.

Still In Limbo

The Pickle Company has refused to address its alleged minimum-wage violations, but in a statement issued to the press in February, the company defended the wages by saying they were "commensurate for training programs such as this."

While the case of the Pickle workers may be one of the worst violations of workers' and immigrants' rights in recent memory, it is not the only one. About a year before the Indian workers decided to escape from the Pickle factory, another case of involuntary servitude was coming to light in American Samoa, where approximately 270 mostly Vietnamese garment workers had been held against their will and paid less than the minimum wage by a South Korean factory owner.

According the Barbara Briggs, a senior associate at the National Labor Committee who helped break the story to the press, government agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Department of Labor failed to recognize or stop the abuses by management until the workers stories were publicized in newspapers around the country, including The New York Times.

The story of the Vietnamese workers in Samoa, however, has a somewhat happy, perhaps bittersweet, ending: the factory was shut down and its owner arrested in Hawaii in March 2001. A year later, in April, a court ordered him to pay the workers $3.5 million in back wages and damages.

Despite threats to the Indian men and their families, some of the workers began slipping under a gate near the back of the Pickle factory in order to attend the Hale Station Pentecostal Church across the street. Although only a few of the men are Christian, the church provided a temporary sanctuary from the hell of the Pickle plant. It was there that they met Mark Massey, a member of the church who offered to put them up in his house.

By this time, Pickle was tapping the men's phones and reading their emails. When he learned of the church-going group's plan to leave the plant, he called the Tulsa County sheriff's department. Three deputy sheriff's cars promptly arrived at the factory and escorted the group first to the Gold Bank to close their checking accounts, and then to the Tulsa airport for a flight to Bombay via Atlanta. At the airport, they were handed envelopes with their passports and back wages. Shaji says that when he opened his envelope, he found only $7.

As the men were departing, they made a frantic call to Massey, who faxed the INS in Atlanta and requested that the men be returned to Tulsa. Immigration officials in Atlanta then checked the men's visas and informed them that they were free to stay in the United States. Afraid of the shame of returning to India empty-handed and defeated, most of the men returned to Tulsa the same day. Shortly after the group returned from Atlanta, the rest of the men left the factory en masse to stay with Massey and his family.

Massey owns a farm house in the unincorporated town of Pretty Water, Okla., and 45 of the men -- now known throughout the area simply as "the Pickle workers" -- are living there. They mill about, some playing volleyball, some watching TV, some praying. In the three months since their liberation from the Pickle factory, Massey has become their de facto caretaker, donating the house for their use and organizing relief efforts that include perpetual garage sales to raise money for the men and their families until the October court date.

Back in Tulsa, the John Pickle Company's factory still churns out pressure vessels, many of which sit rusting near the factory gates. A preliminary court date for a civil suit against the company is set for October 21. No one seems willing to speculate on what the future may hold for them, but they are determined to stay in the United States, which could happen if the INS determines that they were victims of "involuntary servitude." Until then, they remain in limbo. They cannot legally work for money so they volunteer, "to give back to the community," as Massey puts it.

I ask one of the men, Jonathan Moraes, who he thinks is ultimately responsible for their plight. Is it Mr. Gulam, John Pickle, or the United States or Indian governments?

"I don't know," he shrugs. "Maybe it's this globalization thing."

Russell Cobb is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), June 19, 2002

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