Defending the Dignity of Migrant Workers

Tuesday marked the 146th Anniversary of National Freedom Day, the day on which President Abraham Lincoln signed the joint congressional resolution that outlawed slavery and became the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In remarks to the president's Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that "modern slavery, often hidden and unrecognized, persists today on every continent and, most tragically, right here in the United States, despite being prohibited by both domestic legislation and international law."

On that same day, the ACLU and its co-counsel filed for class certification (PDF) in a case on behalf of over 500 Indian guestworkers. The lawsuit alleges the workers were trafficked into the U.S. and subjected to squalid living conditions, fraudulent payment practices, and threats of serious harm under the control of Signal International, LLC, a company that builds ships and offshore oil drilling rigs.

The lawsuit was first filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in March 2008. The ACLU is co-counsel with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute, and Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP. If class status is granted, it could be the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history.

The complaint alleges that recruiting agents hired by Signal International held the guestworkers' passports and visas, coerced them into paying extraordinary fees for recruitment, immigration processing and travel, and threatened the workers with serious legal and physical harm if they did not work under the Signal-restricted guestworker visa. Between 2004 and 2006, hundreds of Indian men paid as much as $20,000 each for travel, visa, recruitment and other fees under the pretense that it would lead to good jobs and permanent U.S. residency for them and their families.

The complaint also claims that once in the U.S., the workers were housed at Signal's overcrowded, unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps, where as many as 24 men shared a trailer with only two toilets. The lawsuit charges Signal and its agents have violated the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. In addition to Signal's corporate violation of domestic laws and polices, the federal government has failed to protect the rights of migrants under the International Convention on the Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICPRMW), as proven by the lack of government oversight necessary to prevent such a trampling of rights.

Also Tuesday, the FBI, Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior joined — for the first time — the Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons meeting, which suggests that various governmental agencies and departments are now strengthening their efforts to remedy this endemic domestic issue and, hopefully, advance lawsuits against culpable corporations. Fulfillment of the task force's mandate, in addition to greater overall respect for international norms, are opportunities the U.S. must seize to affirm the human rights to which all migrants are entitled.

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