Federal Jury Awards $14 Million To Five Trafficked Indian Guest Workers
In the first of a series of cases spearheaded by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) involving several hundred clients, a federal jury awarded five Indian guest workers $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a labor trafficking scheme. The cases were divided into five workers per case after a judge did not grant class action status. The SPLC is coordinating a legal collaboration bringing together almost a dozen of law firms and civil rights organizations to represent the workers on a pro bono basis, in what the organization is calling “one of the largest labor trafficking cases in U.S. history.”
The workers had each paid recruiters and a lawyer for Signal International, a Gulf Coast marine services company, $10,000 to $20,000 or more to come to the United States on H-2B temporary worker visas after they were promised good jobs, green cards, and eventual permanent residence for themselves and their families. When the workers arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, they did not receive what they were promised and were forced to pay $1,050 per month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps. The workers, who were born in India, could not have obtained the promised green cards under the backlogged employment-based third preference within the time frame of the H-2B visas. The green card strategy was also incompatible with the temporary H-2B visa. As many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer, SPLC reported. Only Signal’s Indian workers were required to live in the company housing. When some tried to find their own housing, they were told they would still be charged the housing fee, to be deducted from their pay. Company employees searched the worker’s belongings and threatened those who complained with deportation. Many of the men in this series of cases had sold property or gone deeply into debt to come to the United States, and their families were at risk as a result.
SPLC’s co-counsel in this case were Crowell & Moring, LLP; the American Civil Liberties Union; the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker; and the Louisiana Justice Institute. Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers (ABIL) member Cyrus Mehta served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. The immigration group at Fredrikson & Byron, another ABIL member law firm, is contributing its time pro bono to represent other Signal employees in a similar lawsuit.