NEW YORK: Dozens of Indian guest workers, who paid thousands of dollars each to an American company which lured them with false promises of green cards and which forced them to work in slavery-like conditions once they came to the US, have filed lawsuits against the company and its recruiters.
Signal, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, is a subcontractor for several major multinational companies.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 scattered its workforce, the company used the H-2B visa guest worker program to bring employees to work as welders and pipe-fitters.
Between 2004 and 2006, hundreds of Indian men paid Signal’s recruiters as much as $25,000 for travel, visa, recruitment and other fees after they were told it would lead to good jobs, green cards and permanent U.S. residency. Many of the workers sold their houses and other valuables and took out high-interest loans to come up with the money, according the Southern Poverty Law Center, a no-profit that fights for civil rights, which is instrumental in filing these lawsuits.
When the men arrived at Signal in late 2006 and early 2007, they discovered that they would not receive the green cards as promised. Instead, Signal forced the men to pay approximately $1,050 per month to live in isolated, fenced labor camps, where as many as 24 men shared a single trailer with only two toilets.
Signal officials told the guest workers that they would still deduct the “man camp” fees from the workers’ paychecks even if they found their own housing elsewhere. Visitors were not allowed into the camps, and company employees regularly searched the workers’ belongings. Workers who complained about the conditions were threatened with deportation.
The Southern Poverty Law Center had filed a similar suit in 2008 on behalf of 12 plaintiffs, but a federal judge refused to certify it as a class action. It is then that Center roped in known law firms to take up the cases of Indian guest workers. These law firms have filed three lawsuits in Mississippi and Texas at the behest of 83 Indian guest workers against Signal and its recruiters.
The lawsuits allege that the defendants trafficked more than 500 Indian guest workers to the United States after Hurricane Katrina and forced them to work under barbaric conditions at Signal’s shipyards in Pascagoula (Mississippi) and Orange (Texas).
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also sued the company in 2011 for mistreating Indian guest workers. The case is still pending.