More human trafficking lawsuits filed against Signal International
The Southern Poverty Law Center announced that five more lawsuits have been filed this week against Signal International LLC, accusing the shipbuilder and its network of recruiters and labor brokers of trafficking 500 Indian guest workers to the United States and forcing them to work under barbaric conditions.
The new lawsuits filed on behalf of 60 workers are 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. In addition to the lawsuits filed today, three law firms filed lawsuits on behalf of 83 guest workers in May.
The lawsuits follow David v. Signal International LLC, which was filed by the SPLC in 2008 on behalf of 12 named plaintiffs and a class of Indian guest workers. After the court denied class certification for the lawsuit, the SPLC contacted more than half a dozen law firms, which enthusiastically agreed to represent individual guest workers for free. In this new round of lawsuits:
— DLA Piper is suing Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on behalf of four guest workers.
— Equal Justice Center and University of Texas Law School Transnational Worker Rights Clinic are suing Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on behalf of 16 guest workers.
— Fredrikson & Byron P.A. is suing Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas on behalf of 10 guest workers.
— McDermott Will and Emery is suing Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on behalf of two guest workers.
— Skadden Arps is suing Signal in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on behalf of 28 guest workers.
The lawsuits allege that Signal and its agents defrauded 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.
Once these workers were lured to Signal’s shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas, they were forced to live in overcrowded, unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps. The living conditions not only endangered the guest workers’ health and psychological well-being, these workers were assigned the most dangerous and difficult jobs due to their race, ethnicity, religion and national origin. They also were threatened with financial ruin and deportation if they balked.
Signal, which has shipyards in Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, is a subcontractor for several major multinational companies. It used the U.S. government’s H-2B visa guest worker program to import these employees from India to work as welders and pipefitters after Hurricane Katrina scattered its workforce.
The allegations in these lawsuits underscore the critical need to overhaul the United States’ foreign worker programs as part of any comprehensive immigration reform.
“The Indian workers who came to this country through Signal’s recruitment effort were skilled laborers seeking opportunity, but they were forced into modern-day indentured servitude,” said Daniel Werner, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “These cases highlight the urgent need for stronger foreign labor recruiter regulations and better protections for workers – some of which are included in the U.S. Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill.”
The SPLC lawsuit against Signal continues on behalf of the 12 named plaintiffs. They are represented by Crowell & Moring LLP, the SPLC, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker, PLLC, and the Louisiana Justice Institute. The three lawsuits filed in May by Latham & Watkins LLP, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP, and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP also are proceeding.
Latham & Watkins LLP recently added 14 more workers as plaintiffs for a total of 47 plaintiffs. Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP added 10 more workers for a total of 45 plaintiffs. More lawsuits are expected to be filed later this summer.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a separate federal lawsuit against Signal on April 20, 2011. The EEOC lawsuit, initially filed in Mississippi and since transferred to Louisiana, alleges that the company intentionally discriminated against the same group of Indian guest workers.