MONTGOMERY, Ala. (May 21, 2013) – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) today announced an unprecedented collaborative effort by several of the country’s most prestigious law firms to prosecute, on a pro bono basis, multiple human trafficking and racketeering lawsuits against Signal International, LLC and its network of recruiters and labor brokers. The lawsuits, including two filed in Texas on behalf of a total of 50 workers, allege that the defendants trafficked over five hundred Indian guestworkers to the United States after Hurricane Katrina and forced them to work for Signal under barbaric conditions.
Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP sued Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on behalf of 33 guestworkers;
Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP sued Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on behalf of 17 guestworkers; and
Latham & Watkins LLP sued Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on behalf of 33 of the guestworkers.
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 in Texas have agreed to represent more than one hundred additional trafficked guestworkers.
The deplorable exploitation alleged in the complaints underscores the critical need to overhaul our foreign worker programs as part of any comprehensive immigration reform. According to the complaints, Signal and its agents defrauded each of the guestworkers out of tens of thousands of dollars in exorbitant “recruitment fees,” falsely promised them assistance in applying for and obtaining permanent residence in the United States, trafficked them to Signal’s Orange, Texas and Pascagoula, Mississippi, facilities, 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 guestworkers sold family property and heirlooms 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.
These lawsuits stem from the David v. Signal International LLC case, which was filed in 2008 on behalf of 12 named plaintiffs and a class of Indian guestworkers. After the court denied class certification in David, the SPLC contacted over half a dozen high-powered law firms, which enthusiastically agreed to represent the members of the putative class for free.
The David action also continues on behalf of the 12 named plaintiffs, who are represented by Crowell & Moring LLP, SPLC, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), 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 guestworkers.
“The Indian workers who came to this country through Signal’s recruitment effort were skilled laborers seeking opportunity. 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 guestworkers would be unable to have their day in court,” said Daniel Werner, SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney. “These cases seek justice for the victimized guestworkers and also send a strong message to other companies who might engage in this type of behavior. The lawsuits illustrate, in shocking detail, the abuse occurring within the nation’s guestworker programs that are clearly in need of major reform.”
The complaints are available online at http://bit.ly/12rtoP1.
Signal, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, is a subcontractor for several major multi-national companies. After Hurricane Katrina scattered its workforce, Signal used the U.S. government’s H-2B visa guestworker 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. Further background information is available at http://bit.ly/12rtoP1.
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.