Mexican and Indian immigrants who allege they were brought to the Gulf Coast and held captive by companies yesterday called on the U.S. Labor Department to investigate possible civil and criminal violations by employers they describe as slaveholders.

The workers were brought to Louisiana and Mississippi under the federal H-2B visa program, which allows employers to bring foreign workers to the United States to perform temporary nonagricultural work.

According to the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, Louisiana Labor LLC brought 130 Mexican workers to the United States to work for the company, which is owned by Sulphur, La.-based realtor Matt Redd. Redd recruited the workers in Mexico, charged them airfare to the States, then had them driven to Westlake, La.

Redd allegedly stole the workers' passports to prevent their free movement, an act that constitutes a federal crime. He then reportedly leased them to area businesses including car washes, garbage companies and casinos, and promised others work with the prominent construction services company, The Shaw Group.

The Indian visa holders worked for Signal International, a major marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Mississippi and Texas. More than 500 Indian workers were recruited over three years, paying between $14,000 and $20,000 to come to the United States. The workers thought they were acquiring green cards and permanent residency but instead got only six-month visas.

"We drowned our families into debt," said worker Kuldeep Singh, whose father sold his farm to send his son to the United States. "How can I go back empty handed?"

When Signal workers tried to organize, the company allegedly pulled four workers out of bed in a pre-dawn raid and imprisoned them on company property for hours. The other workers then went on strike, forcing the company to release the men.

"This guest worker program is corporate driven, state-sponsored exploitation," charges the center's Saket Soni. "Companies profit from it. And the Department of Labor signs off on it."

Slave-like conditions for foreign workers are not a problem only with Gulf-based companies. Last month, Legal Aid of North Carolina's Farmworker Unit filed two lawsuits against North Carolina employers and Asian labor brokers, charging that the employers and brokers lied to the workers and the U.S. government.

The Raleigh News & Observer reports:

Lawyers with Legal Aid of North Carolina ... say they know of at least 115 workers whom contractors brought to North Carolina from the Far East between 2004 and 2006.

"There's a desire for a work force that's not going to speak up," said Kate Woomer-Deters, a lawyer with Legal Aid. "Any time you can get people who are more vulnerable than Hispanic workers, unfortunately, that's an attractive work force."

In one of the cases, Thai workers allege that a Mount Olive, N.C.-based corporation called Million Express Manpower and a Thai company by the same name violated federal anti-racketeering laws by committing visa fraud and also violated the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act by confiscating their passports and forcing them to work without pay in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

Million Express Manpower in Thailand allegedly promised the workers three-year H-2A visas for agricultural jobs. In return, the workers had to pay their transportation costs and "recruitment fees" of about $11,250 each. But the farm work was sporadic and ended a few months after their arrival. The company eventually moved them from motel housing inspected by the N.C. Department of Labor into crowded outbuildings behind its president's home. Armed guards prevented the men from escaping.

Some of the Thai workers were taken to New Orleans to clean a hotel damaged by Katrina -- work they say they were never paid for. There the men were housed in a condemned hotel and, short of food, were reduced to catching and eating pigeons.

The other Legal Aid suit pits three Indonesian workers against GTN Employment Services of North Carolina, two Indonesian labor recruiters and two North Carolina growers. The three workers each paid over $6,000 in recruitment fees and transportation costs to the labor brokers.

When the men arrived in North Carolina, GTN confiscated their passports, visas and return plane tickets. GTN never offered any farm work to two of the workers and only minimal work to the other. Eventually, all three workers were housed at a GTN warehouse in Charlotte where they had to share a bare mattress on the floor. When the workers asked to leave, GTN demanded more money to retrieve their passports and plane tickets. The workers eventually escaped on foot, leaving their belongings behind.

"The two cases reflect an emerging pattern," says Legal Aid Attorney Mary Lee Hall. "Labor brokers in Asia, with ties to N.C. employers, falsely promise three years of work. Since the contracts are approved by the U.S. government, workers believe the promises to be legitimate and pay the huge recruitment fees demanded by the labor brokers.

"However, the actual work may last only a few months, and workers earn a mere fraction of what they paid to come to the United States. Also, the visa is limited to one employer. It's a situation ripe for exploitation and a subversion of the program, which allows for these visas in case of a true labor shortage."

It's also a situation that could grow worse, as President Bush and many in Congress are pressing to expand guest worker programs as a solution to the nation's immigration woes.

With debate on the programs' expansion about to get underway, the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center this week released a report titled "Close to Slavery: Guest Worker Programs in the United States" that documents the systematic abuse of workers under the H-2 visa system.

"Guestworkers are usually poor people who are lured here by the promise of decent jobs," says report author and SPLC Immigrant Justice Project Director Mary Bauer. "But all too often, their dreams are based on lies, their hopes shattered by the reality of a system that treats them as commodities. They're the disposable workers of the global economy."