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Suits Claim Shipyard Guest Worker Abuse

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

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A new series of federal lawsuits accuses U.S. shipbuilder Signal International of swindling and mistreating hundreds of Indian guest workers recruited for work in the United States.

Signal, based in Mobile, AL, has denied the allegations in the strongest possible terms and calls the suits "an abuse of the legal system."

The three lawsuits were filed May 21 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

The complaints against Signal and other defendants allege thatworkers were duped into believing they would receive green cards, only to be given H-2B temporary work visas; forced to live in unsanitary conditions; and made to work in unsafe conditions.

Signal International lawsuits
New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice

Former Signal International guest workers tore up their H-2B visas in a protest rally at the White House in 2008.

The new litigation follows a case filed in 2008 on behalf of 12 named plaintiffs and a class of Indian guest workers. That action, David, et al. v. Signal International LLC, was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil-rights legal association based in Alabama.

In January 2012, a federal court denied class certification in the case, although the action on behalf of the named defendants continues. The Law Center then contacted several law firms, which agreed to represent other guest workers on a pro bono basis.

Multiple Suits and Defendants

The three new complaints were filed on behalf of dozens of guest workers:

  • Latham & Watkins LLP filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on behalf of 33 workers.
  • Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on behalf of 18 workers.
  • Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP filed a complaint, also in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, on behalf of 35 workers.

In addition to Signal, these defendants are named in all three complaints:

  • Global Resources Inc., a Mississippi company that recruits workers from India for employment in the U.S., and its president, Michael Pol;
  • Dewan Consultants Pvt. Ltd. (aka Medtech Consultants), a company in India that contracted through the Gulf Coast Immigration Law Center LLC in 2004 to identify and recruit Indian workers, and company director Sachin Dewan;
  • The Gulf Coast Immigration Law Center; and
  • Malvern C. Burnett, a Mississippi attorney who allegedly performed much of the legal work to bring the plaintiffs and other Indian workers to the U.S. on H-2B visas, and Burnett's law practice.

The Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP complaint also names these defendants:

  • Indio-Amerisoft LLC, a Louisiana corporation that recruits and provides Indian laborers to U.S. companies, and its chairman and director, Kurella Rao; and
  • J & M Associates of Mississippi Inc., a recruiting firm that provides Indian labor for U.S. employment, and its founder and general manager, Billy R. Wilks.

Several other law firms have agreed to represent more than 100 additional guest workers, the Law Center said.

'Exaggerated Claims'

Signal CEO Richard Marler condemned the litigation in a statement.

"I am astounded at this abuse of the legal system," the statement said.

"These are the same exaggerated claims which have been exposed as false allegations by a Federal Court Judge well over a year and a half ago. Signal made every attempt to bring these H-2B workers into the Signal family of employees and treated them with dignity and respect just as we treat each and every Signal employee."

Signal International is a marine and fabrication company whose core business is construction and repair of offshore drilling rigs, ships and vessels. The company has shipyards in Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, and is a subcontractor for several major multinational companies.

H-2B is a nonimmigrant program that permits employers to hire foreign workers to perform temporary nonagricultural services or labor.

Abuses Alleged

The lawsuits allege that the defendants recruited about 590 Indian guest workers to the United States after Hurricane Katrina to work at Signal's shipyards in Pascagoula, MS, and Orange, TX.

The complaints say Signal and its agents:

  • Defrauded guest workers out of fake "recruitment fees";
  • Falsely promised to assist workers in applying for and obtaining permanent U.S. residency;
  • Forced them to live in overcrowded, unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps;
  • 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 complaints also allege that the guest workers "sold family treasures" and "incurred crippling debt" to pay up to $25,000 to Signal and its agents based on promises Signal did not intend to keep.

No Green Cards

According to the lawsuits, once the workers arrived at Signal in late 2006 and early 2007, they discovered they would not receive green cards. Instead, the suits say, the workers had to pay about $1,050 per month to live in isolated fenced labor camps with up to 24 men sharing a single trailer with only two toilets.

Workers who found other housing still had "man camp" fees deducted from their paychecks, the suit says..

Signal International Texas
Signal International

The lawsuits allege that Indian workers at Signal's Texas (pictured) and Mississippi facilities were forced to live in overcrowded trailers and subjected to random searches.

Signal Responds

Signal says the suits are identical to another federal-court action filed by the Law Center, driven by its "agenda to cripple companies during labor shortages who attempt to legally employ workers through the H-2B program."

"It has been a long road for Signal, and we will continue to fight the good fight. Signal is proud of its reputation developed over the past 10 years for safety as well as a good corporate citizen. We look forward to the day where Signal will be vindicated."

The statement cites U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey's January 2012 ruling denying class certification. The 100-page opinion said the case "involves paid workers who in fact could leave their jobs at any time, albeit under penalty of returning to their home countries but that restriction was dictated by U.S. immigration law."

Richard Marler Signal CEO
Signal International

"We will continue to fight the good fight," said Signal CEO Richard Marler.

"The workers were for the most part paid well, free to come and go as they pleased, and some even took vacations and bought cars," Zainey wrote.

"The pressure to work for Signal arguably came at least in part from a set of circumstances that each plaintiff individually brought upon himself when he elected to pay what is now characterized as 'exorbitant' fees..."

Recruitment and Visa Allegations

According to the complaints, Signal employees and other defendants traveled to India and the United Arab Emirates from 2003 to mid-2006 to recruit workers. Using printed ads and in-person meetings, the defendants allegedly promised plaintiffs jobs at Signal and help in obtaining green cards in exchange for "recruitment fees."

The "cornerstone" of the defendants' "scheme was the tantalizing prospect that Signal would be able to hire a skilled workforce at effectively no cost by forcing the plaintiffs and their coworkers to foot the bill for their own recruitment, immigration processing, and travel," one complaint alleges.

At the same time, however, the defendants were telling the U.S. government that the workers were temporary and would be returned home within the year, the suit says.

'Things that Should Not Be Known'

The complaints say the workers were forced to surrender their passports until they signed documents written in English, a language that most could not proficiently read or speak, before departing for the U.S.

The suits also say the workers were coached on their visa interviews with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and were specifically told not to mention that they had been promised help in obtaining green cards..

The complaint cites a 2006 email from recruiter Pol to Signal's Special Projects Manager John Sanders. The email said that Burnett, Dewan or Pol "needs to be with each and every candidate going into the consulates before their interview" because the workers "sometimes say the dumbest things and need to be coached on the proper way to interview."

It added: "... [T]here are some things that should not be known to the consulate personnel, such as the fact that we are going to process them for a green card. If one of those guys says he is going to the U.S. for immigration and Signal is sponsoring him for permanent residence (green card)...he is a goner."

'Filthy Conditions'

The lawsuits also say the workers' living quarters were cramped, with insuffient toilets and bathing facilities. They say workers and their belongings were subject to random searches.

Signal International Mississippi
Signal International

The new lawsuits stem from a 2008 case that was denied class certification in 2012. The judge stated that the workers "could leave their jobs at any time."

"Filthy and unhygienic kitchen conditions" led to frequent illnesses among workers, sometimes requiring hospitalization, one suit says.

One complaint quotes a Signal manager at the Pascagoula camp as saying, "Our Indians have been dropping with sickness like flies. ... [They] are getting worried and believe there are unhealthful conditions in the camp. It is true."

The complaints also allege that Signal forced men of Sikh heritage to shave their beards; the beard is an important religious tradition to Sikh men.

When workers complained about the conditions, some were fired, removed from the camp, and told they would be sent back to India, the suit says. It says one worker became so distraught over the prospect of returning to India laden with debt that he attempted suicide in front of one of the plaintiffs.

The next day, the suits say, Signal allegedly told plaintiffs that if any workers sued the company, everyone would be sent back to India.

2008 Lawsuit Continues

The 2008 lawsuit accused Signal International and a network of recruiters and labor brokers of defrauding hundreds of guest workers from India between 2004 and 2006 by luring them with false promises of permanent U.S. residency and convincing them to pay tens of thousands of dollars each to obtain temporary jobs at Gulf Coast shipyards after Hurricane Katrina.

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and accused the defendants of forced labor, human trafficking, fraud, racketeering and civil-rights violations.

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


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Health & Safety; Health and safety; Laws and litigation; Lawsuits; Offshore; Shipyards; Welding; Workers

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