04/20/2011

EEOC Action in Labor Trafficking Case Reinforces SPLC Claims of Abuse

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission today filed suit against Signal International, LLC, accusing the company of abusing hundreds of foreign guestworkers lured to work in the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This government action reinforces the trafficking and abuse claims we brought against the company three years ago.

The EEOC's lawsuit charges that Signal engaged in human labor trafficking and discriminated against hundreds of Indian guestworkers in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas. The guestworkers, who are represented by the SPLC and other attorneys, will ask the court to allow them to join the EEOC's case as plaintiffs. 

Like our 2008 suit, the EEOC complaint alleges that Signal forced the workers to live in unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps. It also alleges the company subjected them to hostile treatment based on their race and national origin and that it retaliated against two workers for complaining about the discriminatory treatment.

The EEOC lawsuit is the first time a federal agency has taken legal action in support of the claims of these guestworkers. It's significant because the government is seeking to hold Signal – rather than labor recruiters or other "middlemen" – responsible for the abuses.

We're pleased the EEOC has taken action in a case that illustrates in shocking detail the abuse occurring within the nation's guestworker program. These workers only wanted the American dream but instead were bound to an abusive employer, subjected to routine discrimination and forced to endure horrific conditions.

Signal, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, is a subcontractor for multinational companies such as Northrop Grumman Corp., Transocean and BP. After Hurricane Katrina scattered its workforce, Signal used the U.S. government's guestworker program to import employees to work as welders, pipefitters, shipfitters and in other positions.

Between 2004 and 2006, hundreds of Indian men paid Signal's recruiters as much as $20,000 for travel, visa, recruitment and other fees after recruiters told them 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.

When the men arrived at Signal in late 2006 and early 2007, they discovered that they wouldn't receive the green cards as promised – but rather 10-month guestworker visas. Signal forced them to pay $1,050 a month to live in crowded company housing in isolated, fenced labor camps, where as many as 24 men shared a trailer with only two toilets.

When the guestworkers tried to find their own housing, Signal officials told them they would still have the rent deducted from their paychecks. Visitors were not allowed into the camps. Company employees searched the workers' belongings. Workers who complained were threatened with deportation, which would be ruinous after mortgaging their futures to obtain the jobs.

One of our clients, Sabulal Vijayan, said he took the guestworker job simply because he wanted a better life for his family. "Instead, I was subjected to discrimination and abuse I never thought I'd experience in this country," he said.

Our co-counsels in the case are the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Louisiana Justice Institute and the law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf.