Abuse Of Workers In Federal Program Violates U.S. And International Human Rights Law
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NEW ORLEANS – The American Civil Liberties Union today charged that workers brought to the United States from India to work in shipyards after Hurricane Katrina were misleadingly recruited, exploited and mistreated. The ACLU and the law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP joined a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of over 500 guestworkers charging the workers were trafficked into the U.S. through the federal government's H-2B guestworker program with dishonest assurances of becoming lawful permanent U.S. residents and subjected to squalid living conditions, fraudulent payment practices and threats of serious harm upon their arrival.
"Immigrant guestworkers are among the most vulnerable groups of workers in the United States," said Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program and co-counsel in the case. "Often paying exorbitant sums of money to deceitful and abusive recruiters in their home countries, these guestworkers are subject to the control of a single 'employer-sponsor' once they've arrived in the U.S., with no safeguards in place to protect even the limited rights guaranteed by law."
The complaint charges that recruiting agents hired by the marine industry company 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. The complaint also charges that once in the U.S., the men were required to live in Signal's guarded, overcrowded labor camps, subjected to psychological abuse and defrauded out of adequate payment for their work.
"Trafficking immigrants to perform forced labor for little to no pay under the guise of a guestworker program amounts to involuntary servitude," said Bhatnagar. "The government must take immediate action to stop sanctioning worker abuse and fix this dangerous system."
The ACLU charges that the federal government has fallen short of its responsibility to protect the rights of guestworkers in this country. According to the lawsuit, the workers are victims of human trafficking and their treatment violates the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), which is meant to protect and defend the human rights of victims of contemporary slavery and trafficking. The TVPA is currently up for reauthorization.
The ACLU and Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP join the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute and the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice in the lawsuit against Signal, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in March 2008. The litigation arose out of a broader organizing campaign spearheaded by the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice.
The amended complaint is available online at: www.aclu.org/intlhumanrights/immigrantsrights/36237lgl20080429.html