In this Saturday, Sept. 10, 2005 file photo, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, flood-waters still covers parts of New Orleans. Photo: David J. Phillip/AP
WASHINGTON — The first in a series of lawsuits got underway earlier this month in what supporters say collectively entail one of the largest cases of human trafficking ever recorded in the United States.
Each of the cases involves allegations of misrepresentation and forced labor, brought by dozens of South Asian workers against Signal International, a marine-services company. The charges stem from the huge amount of repair and cleanup work required in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 cyclone that devastated large parts of the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline.
Faced with a major labor shortage, Signal brought in nearly 600 pipefitters, welders and other workers from India. According to these men, recruiters working for the company reportedly promised green cards and permanent residency for the laborers and their families.
In fact, the men were brought in as temporary laborers under a special federal mechanism meant to provide companies with necessary temporary labor, the H-2B “guestworker” program. Further, this facility has long been criticized as being vulnerable to misuse by employers.
Not only do the men allege that they were lured to these jobs under false pretenses, but that once they arrived they were forced to stay in – and pay for – unsanitary, cramped and guarded “labor camps.” When some of them tried to leave, they were allegedly threatened with deportation.
This first case, known as Kurian David et al v. Signal International, is being heard in federal court in Louisiana and will represent just a dozen of the men. But several similar cases are also proceeding, and supporters say the resulting decisions have ramifications across the U.S. immigration system.
“This is an extremely important case,” Alan Howard, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney in David v. Signal, told MintPress News in a statement. “We’re looking forward to presenting to a jury all of the facts about what happened to our clients, and our clients are excited about finally getting their day in court.”
While the plaintiffs were originally hoping to represent a much larger group of aggrieved workers, a judge rejected a request to file the case as a class action in 2012. Now, in a coordinated move that supporters describe as unprecedented, a half-dozen cases representing some 68 workers are going forward against Signal in multiple jurisdictions.
“This case shows that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal tried to use the U.S. guestworker program to create a captive workforce,” JJ Rosenbaum, legal and policy director at the National Guestworker Alliance, a New Orleans-based group created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, told MintPress.
“This group of workers really overcame the challenges of forced labor to demand accountability as workers in what is a very important and growing sector of the Gulf Coast economy.”
Each of the lawsuits against Signal International starts with the onerous debts the Indian workers incurred to take on the jobs. This reportedly gave Signal significant leverage over the workers once the men began to question the conditions of their labor.
According to a complaint filed in August in the David v. Signal case, workers were required to pay anywhere from $11,000 to $25,000 in various fees. Further, many gave up jobs in India and elsewhere while selling lands and otherwise putting themselves and their families in deep debt. In this, they were enticed not only by the prospect of good jobs in the United States but also by long-term security for their families.
While much of this allegedly fraudulent activity was carried out by recruiters and immigration lawyers, the complaint suggests that evidence exists that Signal International “was aware” of these “false promises from the start” and then continued to perpetuate a coercive process once it began.
According to the complaint: “Signal and its agents further caused Plaintiffs to believe that if they did not work for Signal under the auspices of temporary, Signal-restricted … guestworker visas, they would suffer abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process, physical restraint, and/or other serious harm.”
Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, and the Indian workers employed by Signal International began arriving around a year later, in October 2006. The complaint states that workers continued to arrive until April 2007.
The workers were reportedly forced to live, under guard, in remote 24-man trailers. For these accommodations, they say they were required to pay more than $1,000 per month. Meanwhile, most of the workers say they were not allowed to keep their vital documents, including their passports and work permits.
Eventually, some of the workers started to complain about their working and living conditions, some of which they said were abusive. Some of the workers also contacted legal assistance, to try to figure out their rights and potential options. In March 2007, Signal detained several of the men and began deportation proceedings, reportedly with collusion from the Department of Homeland Security.
Signal International’s attorney did not respond to request for comment for this story. On Jan. 12, however, the company did issue a press release noting that it “has always maintained the plaintiffs’ claims are meritless, and has vigorously defended itself for over seven years.”
The company denies the most critical allegation — that it held the Indian workers against their will — and states that the threats of deportation were not retaliatory.
“[T]his case involves paid workers who could leave their job at any time, were well paid, and free to come and go as they pleased,” the company says. “The only consequence of quitting their job was returning to their home country, but that restriction was dictated by U.S. immigration law not Signal.”
New H-2B understanding
While the judicial process has proceeded slowly for the aggrieved workers, they have not been idle during the intervening time. The laborers have engaged in a series of marches, protests and a month-long hunger strike. In 2009, they testified before Congress.
More broadly, they have engaged in public education activities around the H-2B program in general. Indeed, for many the details of the Signal International lawsuits are especially important in underscoring the continued vulnerabilities of the guestworker program.
“They have really been path-breaking leaders in building up understanding about the guestworker program and offering firsthand accounts of its realities – and how companies can manipulate the program to create conditions of forced labor,” the National Guestworker Alliance’s Rosenbaum said.
“This has been a hugely courageous step they’ve been taking over the past eight years, and it’s really changed the discussion about the impact of these H-2B visas.”
Over the past decade the Department of Labor has attempted to tighten up regulation of the H-2B program, both in terms of how wages are set and the strength of anti-retaliation safeguards. As with the many other longstanding concerns regarding the U.S. immigration system, however, substantive change is awaiting broad legislative changes, a process that currently remains stymied.
One provision of the reform bill approved by the U.S. Senate last year was specifically informed by the Signal International experience. Introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the POWER Act would provide additional protections allowing workers in severe labor disputes to come forward and potentially work for another employer. These new guidelines would largely take away the critical threat of deportation in such cases.
Rosenbaum says the provision would be significant, and expresses hope that it will remain on the table once the Congress again takes up immigration reforms. Yet even ahead of any major legislative changes, she says the Signal case is already sending an important message to other employers.
“It’s a real warning to a number of companies that are coming into the Gulf Coast right now and creating jobs in the energy sector,” Rosenbaum said.
“These companies have to treat their workers with dignity and respect, no matter where they come from. They have to follow the law, and they can’t use the incredible debt people are carrying, along with threats of deportation and retaliation, to try to create an exploitable workforce.”