Trial Begins Against Company Accused of Exploiting Indian H2B Workers

When Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast in August of 2005, the region’s economy came to a catastrophic standstill. Virtually overnight, thousands of residents whose homes were destroyed were forced to relocate, resulting in a precarious labor shortage along the Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana coastlines. One Alabama-based shipbuilding company, Signal International, turned to India to solve its labor shortage crisis. Taking advantage of the H2B program, which is for temporary non-agricultural workers, the company recruited over 500 men from India to work at its docks in Texas and Mississippi, repairing oil platforms and ships that were damaged by the storm. It seemed like the perfect solution – the company would remain financially solvent while providing a path to a better life for hardworking immigrants. Now, almost ten years later, the company is defending itself in court against horrific accusations of human trafficking, abuse, and fraud.

Nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed by former H2B workers against Signal International, and testimony began this week in the first case to go to trial. The former employees say that they were lured to the United States from India by the company, beginning in November 2006. Recruiters advertising in India and the United Arab Emirates allegedly asked recruits for up to $25,000 in fees in exchange for positions with Signal International under the H2B nonimmigrant program. According to the accusations, the recruits were promised that payment of the hefty fees would eventually lead to a chance for permanent residency in the U.S. However, the former employees allege that when they arrived to work in the United States, they were subjected to deplorable abuse, including being forced to live in crowded, unsanitary company camps that were segregated from other Signal International employees. They also claim they were paid substantially less than what was promised by the recruiters, and that workers who dared to complain were told that their H2B visas would not be renewed. [See Testimony Begins In Indian-Worker Trafficking Lawsuit Against Signal International, by Andy Grimm, The Times-Picayune, 11.Jan.2015.]

Signal International, for its part, is fighting back against the accusations. The company claims it was not aware that their recruiting firm, Global Resources, was making false promises to the recruits. The company also blames their immigration attorney, Malvern Burnett, for not properly guiding the company through the H2B immigration process. However, attorneys for the former Indian workers insist the company must be held accountable for effectively trapping recruits, many of whom borrowed money to pay the exorbitant recruiting fees for the “opportunity” to work for Signal International, and faced jail time for failure to repay their debts if they returned to India.

Unfortunately, unless action is taken, immigrants hoping for a better life may continue to suffer abuse at the hands of unscrupulous employers. Dan Werner of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the organization that initially announced the lawsuits, said in an interview with U.S. News and World Report that more regulation is needed to ensure that immigrants “don’t mortgage their futures in order to have opportunities to work in the U.S.” He went on to say that the lawsuits against Signal International only “scratch the surface” of the amount of abuse H2B workers face in our country. This is unacceptable. The United States has long been renowned as a haven for immigrants, and we owe it to ourselves and to the immigrants who shape our nation’s culture, history, and values, to ensure that foreign nationals who come to our country are treated with respect and dignity. We should never allow the American dream to turn into a nightmare. [See More Human Trafficking Lawsuits Filed Against Major U.S. Shipbuilder, by Elizabeth Flock, U.S. News and World Report, 08.Aug.2013.]


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