SPLC complaint in David v. Signal International, LLC
Guest workers from India, lured by false promises of permanent U.S. residency, paid tens of thousands of dollars each to obtain temporary jobs at Gulf Coast shipyards only to find themselves forced into involuntary servitude and living in overcrowded, guarded labor camps. The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the workers, David v. Signal International, LLC. After a seven-year legal battle culminating in a four-week trial, a jury awarded $14.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages to five guest workers. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also took legal action against Signal.
SPLC complaint in David v. Signal International, LLC
The SPLC filed suit on behalf of guest workers from India who were defrauded and exploited in a labor trafficking scheme engineered by a Gulf Coast marine services company, an immigration lawyer and an Indian labor recruiter who lured hundreds of workers to a Mississippi shipyard with false promises of permanent U.S. residency.
After a seven-year legal battle culminating in a four-week trial, a federal jury awarded $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages to five Indian guest workers in February 2015. It found that the company, Signal International, New Orleans lawyer Malvern C. Burnett and India-based recruiter Sachin Dewan engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination. The jury also found that one of the five plaintiffs was a victim of false imprisonment and retaliation.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, describes how in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal used the U.S. government’s H-2B guest worker program to import nearly 500 men from India to work as welders, pipefitters and in other positions to repair damaged oil rigs and related facilities. Some were sent to Pascagoula, Mississippi, and others to Orange, Texas.
The workers each paid the labor recruiters and a lawyer between $10,000 and $20,000 or more in recruitment fees and other costs after recruiters promised good jobs, green cards and permanent U.S. residency for them and their families. Most sold property or plunged their families deeply into debt to pay the fees.
When the plaintiffs arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, beginning in 2006, they discovered that they wouldn’t receive the green cards or permanent residency that had been promised. Signal also forced them each 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. The workers also faced disparagement because of their race or nationality, and none of Signal’s non-Indian workers were required to live in the company housing.
In March 2007, some of the workers were illegally detained by Signal’s private security guards after a pre-dawn raid of their quarters in Pascagoula. Two were detained for the purpose of deporting them to India in retaliation for complaining about the abuses and meeting with workers’ rights advocates.
After a judge did not grant class action status to the SPLC case – a status that would have allowed the suit to benefit most of Signal’s guest workers – the SPLC coordinated an unprecedented legal collaboration that brought together nearly a dozen of the nation’s top law firms and civil rights organizations to represent, on a pro bono basis, hundreds of workers excluded from the original SPLC suit by the denial of class action status.
Plaintiffs: Hemant Khuttan, Andrews Issac Padaveettiyl, Sony Vasudevan Sulekha and Palanyandi Thangamani. (List does not include all original plaintiffs, some of whom became plaintiffs in related suits after class action status was denied.)
Defendants: Signal International LLC, Malvern C. Burnett and Sachin Dewan. (List does not include all original defendants, only those who were still defendants at the time of trial.)
EEOC complaint in EEOC v. Signal International
Three years after the SPLC filed its lawsuit, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Signal, accusing the company of discriminating against the Indian guest workers in the David case filed by the SPLC and its co-counsel. The EEOC’s lawsuit also alleges that Signal retaliated against the workers – firing them, detaining them and attempting to deport them – when they tried to oppose the company’s discriminatory practices.
The EEOC lawsuit is part of an effort targeting extreme labor abuse. The court allowed the guest workers represented by the SPLC to join the EEOC’s case as plaintiff-intervenors, providing these workers with a voice in the EEOC case and another opportunity for justice. The EEOC lawsuit is also significant because the government sought to hold Signal, rather than labor recruiters or other “middlemen,” responsible for the abuses.
The lawsuit charges that Signal discriminated against the Indian workers by requiring them to pay astronomical rent to live in substandard, crowded housing that non-Indian workers did not have to occupy, and created and perpetuated a hostile work environment against the Indian employees based on their race or national origin.
Plaintiff: The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Plantiff Intervenors: Kurian David, Sony Vasudevan Sulekha, Palanyandi Thangamani, Maruganantham Kandhasamy, Hemant Khuttan, Andrews Issac Padaveettiyl, Dhananjaya Kechuru, Sabulal Vijayan, Krishnan Kumar, Kuldeep Singh, and Thanasekar Chellappan
Defendant: Signal International, LLC
Date(s) of Disposition: