BEAUMONT, TX – The Equal Justice Center has filed a federal lawsuit for 16 guest workers from India against Signal International LLC, accusing the shipbuilder and its network of recruiters and labor brokers of trafficking these workers to the United States and forcing them to work under barbaric conditions.
The lawsuit is part of an unprecedented effort by some of the nation’s most prestigious law firms to prosecute, on a pro bono basis, multiple human trafficking lawsuits against Signal. The legal action filed by the EJC joins four other suits filed today in Texas and Mississippi on behalf of on be a total of 60 Indian guest workers by the law firms of DLA Piper, Fredrickson & Byron, McDermott Will & Emery, and Skadden Arps. In addition to the lawsuits filed today, three previous lawsuits were filed against Signal in May by law firms and by Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP; and in Mississippi by Latham and Watkins LLP, and Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP, representing 83 Indian guest workers trafficked and exploited by Signal.
The lawsuits allege that Signal and its labor recruiters imported more than 500 workers from India to work as welders and pipe fitters at the company’s shipyards in Orange, Texas and Pascagoula, Mississippi, using the H-2B temporary foreign guest worker program to take advantage of the workers as exploitable, indentured labor. Among other things, Signal and its recruiters defrauded the guest workers out of millions of dollars in exorbitant “recruitment fees” and falsely promised help in applying for and obtaining permanent U.S. residence. The guest workers sold family property and heirlooms, and incurred crippling debt, to each pay as much as $25,000 to Signal and its recruiting agents, believing they would get good jobs that could support their families.
Once these workers were lured to Signal’s Orange, Texas and Pascagoula, Miss. shipyards, they were forced to live in overcrowded, unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps. The living conditions endangered the guest workers’ health and psychological well-being and these workers were assigned the most dangerous and difficult jobs due to their race, ethnicity, religion and national origin. They were threatened with financial ruin and deportation if they balked.
The allegations in these lawsuits underscore the critical need to reform the United States’ foreign worker programs as part of any comprehensive immigration reform.
“These guest workers were lured from India to the U.S. by Signal and its labor recruiters using false promises of good jobs and economic opportunity. Instead they were fleeced and forced into modern-day indentured servitude,” said attorney Bill Beardall, Director of the non-profit Equal Justice Center and faculty director of the Transnational Worker Rights Clinic at the University of Texas Law School. “These cases graphically illustrate the need for stronger regulation of both the U.S. companies that hire guest workers and of their labor recruiters here and abroad. Better regulation could prevent abuses like these from occurring in the first place.” He noted that the immigration reform bill passed in June by the U.S. Senate would add some new protections that could have thwarted the violations in the Signal cases, but the bill omitted other key protections.