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5 Indian workers in US awarded 88 cr in labour trafficking case

By George Joseph
February 19, 2015 11:26 IST
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Signal International, its network of recruiters and labour brokers are being sued for trafficking 500 Indian guest workers to the United States and forcing them to work under barbaric conditions. George Joseph reports for Rediff.com from New York

A federal jury in the US district court for the eastern district of Louisiana in New Orleans has awarded $14.1 million (approx Rs 87.561 crore) in compensatory and punitive damages to 5 Indian guest workers. The workers were lured to a Mississippi shipyard in 2006 with false promises of higher wages and permanganate residency.

After a 4-week trial before US District Judge Susie Morgan, the jury ruled that Signal International, New Orleans lawyer Malvern C Burnett and India-based recruiter Sachin Dewan engaged in labour trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination. The jury also found that one of the 5 plaintiffs was a victim of false imprisonment and retaliation.

They were among more than 500 Indians, defrauded and exploited in a labour trafficking scheme by the defendants.

Signal said it strongly disagreed with rulings from the court in the case which impacted its ability to present defences and is disappointed with the verdict. Signal is evaluating all of its options including an appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

At Signal, employees under this programme were given the same compensation package as similarly situated employees who held US citizenship. Signal paid employees holding US government H2B visas over $18 per hour, provided medical benefits, safety bonuses, matching 401(k) plans, and overtime pay.

This is the first in a series of suits spearheaded by the Southern Poverty Law Centre that together comprise one of the largest human trafficking cases in US history.

“By speaking out about the lies that were told to us and the abuses we suffered, we hoped to protect other workers from experiencing the same thing. That was our goal, and I hope that this verdict lets other US businesses know that they can’t get away with treating guest workers this way,” Jacob Joseph Kadakkarappally, one of the plaintiffs, said after the verdict.

He was awarded the highest amount of $4.1 million, as he was detained by the company. This is termed as the highest amount awarded in a trafficking case.

“It’s a great day for justice. We are thankful that we had our day in court and grateful that a jury in an American court of law heard our stories and understood the discrimination and deceit that caused us so much pain,” Sony Vasudevan Sulekha, another plaintiff, who was awarded more than $2.27 million, said.

Other plaintiffs and the award amount: Hemant Khuttan: $2.54 million; Andrews Issac Padaveettiyl: $2.6milion; and Palanyandi Thangamani: $2.56 million.

“We expect the defendants will pay what they owe and our clients will get the justice they deserve,” Daniel Werner, senior supervising attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Centre said. They can appeal the verdict, but they have given a bond for 130 per cent of the total award before appealing, he said.

Of the total amount $5 million is awarded as damages and $9.1 million as punitive damages. The defendants have to pay attorney fees too, which is not part of this amount.

The Signal International should pay $12.1 million of the award amount. Attorney Malvern C Burnett and recruiter Sachin Dewan have to pay $900,000 each.

Overall 230 workers have filed cases against the defendants. Another trial for 7 people will start on April 7, Werner said. Some of the trials will be in Texas.

"The defendants exploited our clients, put their own profits over the lives of these honourable workers, and tried to deny them their day in court," said lead attorney Alan Howard, SPLC board chairman and a partner in Crowell and Moring’s New York office. "But they persevered and after seven long years have received the justice they so well deserve."

"This historic verdict puts American companies on notice that if they exploit the flaws in our temporary worker programme, they will be held accountable and punished," said Chandra Bhatnagar, co-counsel in the case and senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Human Rights Program.

"In a victory for justice, the jury has reaffirmed the fundamental principle that all people are entitled to human rights no matter where they are from or what their race or immigration status is."

Nine years ago, in 2006, in response to the employment shortage experienced by companies across the gulf south in the aftermath of hurricanes’ Katrina and Rita, Signal hired approximately 500 guest workers at its then Orange, TX and Pascagoula, MS shipyards under the H-2B visa programme. This US government visa programme allowed for temporary employment of welders, pipefitters and others in companies experiencing shortages of skilled workers. This programme was utilised by a number of other employers from 2005 to 2008 with 71,687 H-2B visas issued in 2006 alone.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal used the H-2B programme for bringing seasonal workers to import nearly 500 men from India to work as welders, pipefitters and in other positions to repair damaged oil rigs and related facilities.

The workers each paid the labour recruiters and a lawyer between $10,000 and $20,000 or more in recruitment fees and other costs after recruiters promised good jobs, and permanent US residency for them and their families. Most sold property or plunged their families deeply into debt to pay the fees.

When they arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, beginning in 2006, they discovered that they wouldn’t receive the green cards or permanent residency that had been promised. Signal also forced them each to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labour camps where as many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer. None of Signal’s non-Indian workers were required to live in the company housing.

"That was the minute where all my expectations were shattered," plaintiff Sony Sulekha testified. "The time that I went into the camp and I looked, I was shocked. Where all my expectations and my happiness all got destroyed, that was the minute that it happened.’ An economist who reviewed Signal’s records estimated the company saved more than $8 million in labour costs by hiring the Indian workers at below-market wages.  

Together, the H-2B visa status, which is for a short duration, the high debt, the poor conditions at the labour camp and the ill-treatment led the men to feel trapped. ‘These men experienced constant stress and humiliation,’ Werner said. ‘Yet, they were stuck. The defendants showed a shocking disregard for their basic human rights.’

When some men tried to find their own housing, Signal officials told them the ‘man camp’ fee would still be deducted from their pay. Visitors were rarely allowed into the camps. Company employees searched workers’ belongings. And workers who complained were threatened with deportation -- a disastrous prospect for those who mortgaged their futures to obtain the jobs.

"I had borrowed so much money to come here," Sulekha testified. "And then if I am returned to India by Signal for standing up for my rights, then my entire family would be in the streets."

In March 2007, some of the workers were illegally detained by Signal’s private security guards during a pre-dawn raid of their quarters in Pascagoula. Two were detained for deporting to India in retaliation for complaining about the abuses and meeting with workers’ rights advocates. One worker who is a plaintiff in a separate suit was so distraught he attempted suicide.

After the treatment of these workers came to light, a 2008 Signal press release declared the company would take legal action and demand that lost earnings be returned to the guest workers. But during cross-examination, Signal CEO Richard L Marler said that the company had not taken any legal action to return lost earnings to these workers. Signal had, however, taken legal action against others involved in the recruitment of these guest workers to compensate the company for the alleged damages it had suffered.

"Human trafficking is a complex human rights issue, and this case demonstrates how male immigrants with visas can be victims and survivors of trafficking," said Ivy O Suriyopas, director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative. "The jury understood this nuance and has helped these men to finally achieve some measure of justice."

The cases were filed separately after a judge did not grant class action status in this case, which would have allowed the suit to benefit most of Signal’s guest workers.

The SPLC coordinated an unprecedented legal collaboration that brought together nearly a dozen of the nation’s top law firms and civil rights organisations to represent, on a pro bono basis, hundreds of workers excluded from the original SPLC suit by the denial of class action status.

The workers who came between 2004 to 2007 and suffered much, are more or less settled now. They got T visas given for victims of human trafficking. Most of them have brought their families and got Green Cards.

But recently some of those who travelled to India with T visa on their passports were not allowed to return to the US. Families of T visa holders organised a protest at the Indian consulate in Houston.

Image used for representational purposes only. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

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