03/10/2008

SPLC Lawsuit: Indian Guestworkers Defrauded by Recruiters, Forced into Slave-like Conditions

Hundreds of guestworkers 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, according to a class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The lawsuit charges that Signal International LLC and a network of recruiters and labor brokers engineered a scheme to defraud the workers and force them to work against their will in Signal facilities in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas.

Several of the workers were illegally detained by company security guards during a pre-dawn raid of their quarters after some began organizing other workers to complain about abuses they faced.

"We were like pigs in a cage," said Sabulal Vijayan, a worker who tried to commit suicide when company guards attempted to detain him.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the complaint claims defendants engaged in forced labor, human trafficking, fraud, racketeering and civil rights violations. Signal is a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Mississippi and Texas. It is a subcontractor for global defense company Northrop Grumman Corp.

After Hurricane Katrina scattered its workforce, Signal used the federal H-2B guestworker program to import employees to work as welders, pipefitters, shipfitters and in other positions. Hundreds of Indian men mortgaged their futures in late 2006 to pay recruiters as much as $20,000 or more 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 gave up other jobs and sold their houses, family farms, jewelry and other valuables to come up with the money. Some took out high-interest loans. Many were also told that for an extra $1,500-per person fee, they could bring their families to live in the United States.

When the men arrived in early 2007, they discovered they wouldn't receive the green cards as promised but only 10-month, H-2B guestworker visas. They were forced 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 they tried to find their own housing, Signal officials told them they would still have the rent deducted from their paychecks.

The camps were miles from the nearest shopping areas, places of worship and residential neighborhoods. With the exception of rare occasions, such as Christmas, visitors were not allowed into the camps, which were enclosed by fences. Company employees regularly searched the workers' belongings.

"This company and its recruiters exploited foreign workers who legally entered the country under the belief that they were going to be able to live the American dream," said Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "Instead, they found themselves chained to an abusive employer, forced to live in a substandard labor camp and threatened with ruin if they tried to stand up for their rights. This case illustrates everything that's wrong with our guestworker program."

Workers who complained about the conditions they faced were threatened with deportation.

"I have been a guestworker all my life in many parts of the world, and I never saw such conditions," said former Signal employee Rajan Pazhambalakode. "We spoke out to break this chain of human trafficking and protect future workers."

By March 9, 2007, the workers had started organizing. Signal responded with an early-morning raid by armed guards on the labor camp in Pascagoula, Miss. Three of the organizers were locked in a room for hours. They were told they would be fired and deported.

Vijayan, who sold his wife's jewelry and borrowed from friends to build a better life in America, slit his wrist in desperation. He recovered after being hospitalized.

"I was losing my control, afraid that [the] company was going to harm me and deport me to India," he said. "I was afraid to [go] back home … empty-handed in front of my poor family and the society. I cut my wrist with a razor blade – forced by the threatening situation created by Signal. I was in the hospital for three days. My family wept for weeks, and my child told me, 'Come back, I need my dad.'"

The incident prompted hundreds of workers to strike. Signal fired the organizers.

On March 6, 100 of the workers in Pascagoula reported themselves to the U.S. Department of Justice as victims of and witnesses to human trafficking. They demanded federal prosecution of Signal.

"These workers endured horrific conditions no company would dream of forcing their local workers to endure," said Kristi Graunke, the SPLC attorney leading the case. "Yet, there are companies that believe they can get away with treating guestworkers like animals and denying their rights because they are a captive workforce."

This litigation arose out of a broader organizing campaign spearheaded by the Alliance for Guest Workers for Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. The legal team also includes Tushar Sheth of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and New Orleans attorney Tracie L. Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute.

Last year, the SPLC released Close to Slavery, a report that documented the widespread, systematic abuse of guestworkers by U.S. employers. It found that guestworkers are routinely cheated out of wages, forced to pay thousands of dollars in fees to obtain low-wage temporary jobs and held virtually captive by employers or labor brokers who seize their documents. It also found that these workers are often forced to live in squalid conditions and denied medical benefits for on-the-job injuries.

The SPLC has worked in the courts and Congress to reform this system fraught with abuse and exploitation. "We are taking action to protect these workers because the Bush administration is refusing to enforce their rights," Bauer said. "We need Congress to reform this shameful system."