EEOC Lawsuit Filed Today Reinforces Indian Guestworkers' Claims of Abuse After Hurricane Katrina

Wednesday, Apr 20, 2011

GULFPORT, MS - A lawsuit filed today by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Signal International, LLC for abusing hundreds of foreign guestworkers lured to work in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina reinforces similar claims brought by the guestworkers, their attorneys say. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Louisiana Justice Institute and the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP have a class action lawsuit pending against the same company on behalf of the same former guestworkers.

The EEOC's lawsuit against Signal charges that the company discriminated against hundreds of Indian guestworkers lured into forced labor in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Orange, Texas. The EEOC case alleges that Signal forced the workers to live in overcrowded, unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps; assigned them the most dangerous and difficult jobs; subjected them to hostile treatment based on their race and national origin; and retaliated against two workers for complaining about the discriminatory treatment. The EEOC alleges that Signal violated the rights of the Indian guestworkers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The former guestworkers continue to litigate a class action lawsuit against Signal and other related defendants alleging, among other things, human trafficking and racketeering. Later this week, the attorneys will seek to join the EEOC's case on behalf of some of the same workers.

Signal, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, is a subcontractor for several major multi-national companies. After Hurricane Katrina scattered its workforce, Signal used the U.S. government's guestworker program to import employees to work as welders and pipefitters. Between 2004 and 2006, hundreds of Indian men paid Signal's recruiters as much as $20,000 for travel, visa, recruitment and other fees after they were told it would lead to good jobs, green cards and permanent U.S. residency. Many of the workers sold their houses and other valuables and took out high-interest loans to come up with the money.

When the men arrived at Signal in late 2006 and early 2007, they discovered that they wouldn't receive the green cards as promised, but rather 10-month guestworker visas. Signal forced them to pay $1,050 a month to live in crowded company housing in isolated, fenced labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a trailer with only two toilets. When the guestworkers tried to find their own housing, Signal officials told them they would still have the mancamp fees deducted from their paychecks. Visitors were not allowed into the camps. Company employees regularly searched the workers' belongings. Workers who complained about the conditions they faced were threatened with deportation.

Sabulal Vijayan, a plaintiff in the human trafficking and racketeering lawsuit and a charging party in the EEOC's case, said: "All I wanted was a better life for my family. That was why I came to America. Instead, I was subjected to discrimination and abuse I never thought I'd experience in this country."

Jacob Joseph Kadakkarappally, a plaintiff in the human trafficking and racketeering lawsuit and a charging party in the EEOC's case, said: "American workers would never be forced to endure what Signal did to us. Signal thought they could get away with the abuses because we're from India."

Daniel Werner, SPLC Deputy Legal Director, said: "We're pleased the EEOC has taken action in a case that illustrates in shocking detail the abuse occurring within the nation's guestworker program. These workers only wanted the American dream but instead were bound to an abusive employer and forced to endure horrific conditions."

Chandra Bhatnagar, ACLU Human Rights Program staff attorney, said: "Flaws in the U.S. guestworker program have allowed Signal to hire a captive workforce, under false pretenses, and then subject them to abusive treatment. Today's action by the EEOC sends a strong message to employers that all workers, regardless of their race, national origin or immigration status, are entitled to basic human dignity and human rights."

Alan Howard of Dewey & LeBoeuf, which has been jointly litigating the class action case on a pro bono basis, said: "We welcome the EEOC lawsuit. There is extensive evidence of these defendants' willingness to exploit the workers in the interest of profits."

The guestworkers' attorneys filed the class action human trafficking and racketeering lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in March 2008. The EEOC's case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

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