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$14 million awarded to 5 guest workers from India who were exploited in Mississippi

The workers from Kerala came on H-2B visas.

By Raif Karerat

Signal-internationalWASHINGTON, DC: A federal judge awarded $14 million to five guest workers from India in a human trafficking and forced labor lawsuit filed against Signal International, an Alabama-based marine services company.

The monumental verdict is the first in a series of litigation brought on behalf of about 500 Indian guest workers by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama civil rights group.

After a four-week trial before U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, the jury ruled that Signal International, New Orleans lawyer Malvern C. Burnett and India-based recruiter Sachin Dewan engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination. The jury also found that one of the five plaintiffs was a victim of false imprisonment and retaliation.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Signal used the U.S. government’s H-2B guest worker program to import nearly 500 men from India to work as welders, pipefitters and in other positions to repair damaged oil rigs and related facilities.

The Southern Poverty Law Center proved that Signal recruiters charged the five workers — all of whom were from the southern state of Kerala — exorbitant fees of more than $10,000 in order to work in the U.S. When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 2006, they discovered that they wouldn’t be receiving the green cards or permanent residency that had been promised.

After completely tearing down the men’s hopes of living the American dream, Signal subsequently forced each of them to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer. None of Signal’s non-Indian workers were required to live in the company housing.

“The defendants showed a shocking disregard for their basic human rights,” said Dan Werner, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project.

When some of the Indian workers attempted to find their own housing, Signal officials informed them the “man camp” fee would still be deducted from their pay. Visitors were rarely allowed into the camps, company employees searched workers’ belongings, and workers who complained were threatened with deportation – a ruinous prospect for those who mortgaged their futures to obtain the jobs.

“I had borrowed so much money to come here,” one victim testified. “And then if I am returned [to India by Signal for standing up for my rights], then my entire family would [be in] the streets.”

Signal “perpetrated a campaign of psychological abuse, coercion and fraud designed to render plaintiffs afraid, intimidated and unable to leave,” state the multiple lawsuits filed on behalf of all 500 Indian workers.

Between their H-2B visa status, high debt, the poor conditions at the labor camp and the discriminatory treatment and disparagement based on their race or nationality, the men felt like captives. One individual even attempted suicide after employers called his wife in India and threatened that she should stop complaining about the conditions.

In March 2007, some of the men were illegally detained by Signal’s private security guards during a pre-dawn raid of their quarters in Pascagoula. Two were detained for the purpose of deporting them to India in retaliation for complaining about the abuses and meeting with workers’ rights advocates.

“They viewed them as expendable, almost like pieces of equipment to handle the backlog of work,” Alan Howard, lead attorney for the plaintiffs and board chairman for the law center, told the Houston Chronicle.

Jurors found Signal guilty of all nine counts that were leveled, including forced labor, human trafficking, fraud, racketeering and human rights violations. The landmark decision now stands as one of the largest cases ever addressed under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The plaintiffs in the case were: Jacob Joseph Kadakkarappally, Hemant Khuttan, Andrews Issac Padaveettiyl, Sony Vasudevan Sulekha and Palanyandi Thangamani.

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