It took 7 long years to get justice for some 200 Indian guest workers defrauded by a major U.S. company, but they stuck it out say their American lawyers, and victory was theirs’ when on July 14, Signal International, a Gulf Coast marine services company decided it would rather pay a total of $20 million to them than face 11 more lawsuits pending in southern courts.
This February, the company had to cough up $14.4 million in a jury ruling to five Indian guest workers, one of the largest settlements of its kind in U.S. history. The ruling was based on the finding that the company and its agents engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination, News India Times reported at that time. The jury also found that one of the plaintiffs was a victim of false imprisonment and retaliation.
In a video posted on the SPLC website, Daniel Warner, SPLC senior supervising attorney in the case described the “dangerous” working conditions for these skilled men in the bowels of the oil rigs and pointed to the huge profits Signal made off their backs after bringing them to this country on false promises. The case was the first of the dozen lawsuits against Signal to go to trial. Now with this an additional settlement of around $6 million to resolve the 11 pending cases, the total of more than $20 million makes it one of the largest labor trafficking cases in U.S. history settled in workers’ favor.
The 11 pending cases were also spearheaded by the Southern Poverty Law Center against Signal along with the leading law firm Crowell & Moring, LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Coschignano & Baker, and the Louisiana Justice Institute.
Signal, based in Mobile, Alabama, will issue an apology to guest workers who also sued in Texas and Louisiana. The agreement has yet to be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court as the company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In the event that the Bankruptcy Court does not approve the settlement Weinstein-Levey told News India Times, “Signal’s owners face considerable risks related to the plaintiffs’ claims if the settlement does not go through. This is why all of the parties support the settlement agreement.”
“We are happy to have reached an agreement and hope to see it quickly approved by the court,” Jim Knoepp, SPLC deputy legal director is quoted saying in a release. “These workers have waited seven long years for justice.” The settlement, he said also serves as a warning to companies that might exploit guest workers.
After the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, Signal imported some 500 men from India under the H-2B guest worker program to work as welders, pipefitters and in other positions to repair damaged oil rigs and related facilities. Each worker paid the labor recruiters and a lawyer between $10,000 and $20,000 or more in recruitment fees and other costs after being promised good jobs, green cards and permanent U.S. residency, some going deep into debt in hopes of a better life. On arrival at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, beginning in 2006, they discovered that they wouldn’t receive the green cards or permanent residency, and that in fact, each would have to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer. None of the company’s non-Indian workers were required to live in the company housing. The workers were forced to stay with Signal as the H-2B visa does not allow changing employers. Emma Weinstein-Levey, spokesperson for SPLC told News India Times they could not share information about the Indian guest workers or their current whereabouts at this time.
The SPLC joined a few of the workers to file suit in 2008, after a particularly egregious incident where some workers were detained by private security guards and threatened with deportation for having spoken out about the abuse. When the judge did not grant class action status to the Indian guest workers, the SPLC filed multiple lawsuits. Nearly a dozen of the nation’s top law firms and civil rights organizations came together to fight the case on a pro-bono basis to represent those guest workers not part of the first lawsuit.
A report entitled “Close to Slavery” brought out by the SPLC documents the abuses within the nation’s H-2B guest worker program and calls for changes to what it considers a broken system.