Five victims of a massive human trafficking scheme were awarded $14 million by a federal jury in New Orleans today, the largest amount ever awarded by a jury in a labor trafficking case.
The historic decision comes in a lawsuit against Signal International, LLC, a shipbuilding company that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, lured more than 500 Indian guest workers to the United States with false promises of green cards. After paying exorbitant fees to a network of brokers, the workers were forced to work in horrifying conditions under threat of deportation.
As we explained in an earlier post about this ACLU case:
[The men] were forced to live under guard, in overcrowded and racially segregated “mancamps” where they slept 24 people in a trailer, in conditions even Signal has acknowledged did not comply with the basic health and safety standards required by law. Signal also admitted in internal emails that the dining facilities in which the workers ate were “disgusting” – so much so that the company “prayed” they would go undetected by health inspectors.
It doesn’t stop there. The workers didn’t just have to live in these racially-based ghettos where sickness was rampant due to overcrowding; they had to pay for them – a whopping $1,050 deducted from each monthly paycheck. In a blunt admission that Signal had every intention of exploiting its workers to the maximum, its CFO referred to the mancamps as “profit centers,” which earned the company more than $730,000 in revenue in 2007. And the company found other ways to make money off the workers, who were subject to regular searches and had to pay a $250 fine – or $500 for a second offense – for violating the mancamps’ “No Visitors” and “No Alcohol” rules. Those penalties only applied to Signal’s Indian labor force. To keep workers “in line,” the policies were enforced by the guards who checked their bags upon entering the mancamps, and occasionally conducted searches of their bunks and belongings.
This shocking discriminatory treatment formed part of the basis for a separate lawsuit filed against Signal by the U.S. government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the Indian workers were victims of discrimination based upon their race and national origin, as well as victims of retaliation by the company that targeted workers that sought to assert their lawful workplace rights.
Tragically, this story is not unique. It fits a template of modern-day bondage that the U.S. guestworker program actually enables through its flawed structure and absence of protections. A lack of U.S. oversight of recruiters abroad (as well as of the employers who hire them) means they have free rein to lie, while employers benefit from those lies. The fact that workers frequently pay huge sums of money for recruiting, visa processing, and travel fees makes them vulnerable when they arrive in this country in mountains of debt. And the guestworker visas bind them to one employer, which means that deportation or undocumented work is the only path for those seeking to leave abusive workplaces. (Read more here about the protections for guestworkers that comprehensive immigration reform must include.)
The five plaintiffs are among more than 200 workers who have sued Signal. The men are represented, pro bono, by some of the most prestigious law firms in the country, in suits coordinated by the Southern Poverty Law Center.