05/21/2013

SPLC spearheads unprecedented legal collaboration to seek justice for Indian guest workers

A coalition of some of the nation’s most prestigious law firms today began filing a series of federal lawsuits to prosecute multiple human trafficking and racketeering allegations against a Gulf Coast marine services company and its network of recruiters and labor brokers.

The cases stem from an SPLC case, David v. Signal International LLC case, which was filed in 2008 on behalf of 12 named plaintiffs and a class of Indian guest workers. After a federal court denied class certification in the case, the SPLC contacted more than half a dozen high-powered law firms, which agreed to represent other guest workers recruited by Signal. The firms are taking the cases on a pro bono basis.

The new 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, Miss., and Orange, Texas.

“These lawsuits illustrate, in shocking detail, the abuse occurring within the nation’s guest worker programs that are clearly in need of major reform,” said Daniel Werner, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “They seek justice for the victimized guest workers and also send a strong message to other companies who might engage in this type of behavior.”

According to the complaints, Signal and its agents defrauded each of the guest workers out of tens of thousands of dollars in fictitious “recruitment fees”; falsely promised them assistance in applying for and obtaining permanent residence in the United States; trafficked them to the company’s Mississippi and Texas shipyards; forced them to live in overcrowded, unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps that endangered their health and psychological well-being; assigned them the most dangerous and difficult jobs due to their race, ethnicity, religion and national origin; and threatened them with financial ruin and adverse immigration action if they balked.

The lawsuits allege that the guest workers sold family treasures and incurred crippling debt to pay as much as $25,000 to Signal and its agents, based on a promise that Signal could not – and did not intend – to fulfill. 

“The Indian workers who came to this country through Signal’s recruitment effort were skilled laborers seeking opportunity,” Werner said. “Instead, they were forced into a type of modern-day indentured servitude. Without the help of these high-caliber law firms coming together in a very unified way, these guest workers would be unable to have their day in court.”

In today’s legal action:

  • Latham & Watkins LLP sued Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on behalf of 33 guest workers;
  • Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP sued Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on behalf of 18 guest workers; and
  • Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP sued Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on behalf of 35 guest workers. 

In addition to the firms listed above, DLA Piper; Fredrikson & Byron P.A.; McDermott Will & Emery; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP; and the Equal Justice Center have agreed to represent more than 100 additional trafficked guest workers.

The SPLC lawsuit continues on behalf of the 12 named plaintiffs, who are also represented by Crowell & Moring LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker, PLLC, and the Louisiana Justice Institute.

Separately, on April 20, 2011, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a federal lawsuit against Signal in Mississippi – since transferred to Louisiana – alleging that the company intentionally discriminated against the same class of Indian guest workers.

Signal, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, is a subcontractor for several major multinational companies. After Hurricane Katrina scattered its workforce, the company used the U.S. government’s H-2B visa guest worker program to import employees to work as welders and pipefitters.

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.

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 guestworkers 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, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see www.splcenter.org.