(CN) - Skilled workers from India suffered "barbaric and prison-like conditions" at a labor camp in Mississippi after Signal International and labor recruiters lured them to America with false promises, then robbed them of thousands of dollars, 80 workers say in three federal lawsuits.
Lakshmanan P. Achari and 31 of his compatriots sued Signal International and recruiter Michael Pol in the Southern District of Mississippi under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
Two similar federal lawsuits filed in Beaumont, Texas by 48 other Indian workers make similar complaints against Signal and its recruiters.
The quotations in this article are from the 106-page Mississippi complaint. The Beaumont complaints - 51 and 72 pages long - also describe litanies of abuses.
Achari et al. claim that Signal charged them as much as $25,000 in "recruitment fees," and promised to help the workers get green cards. But in Mississippi they were trapped in a wretched "man-camp," fed rotten, bug-infested food and forced to pay for it, they say in the complaint.
It was all part of Signal's plan to profit from rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina by using the cheapest labor it could find, the workers say.
"Signal is a Gulf-Coast based marine and fabrication company. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal set out to recruit several hundred foreign workers to work as temporary welders and pipefitters in Signal's Pascagoula, Mississippi facility. Signal also recruited workers to work at a Signal facility in Orange, Texas," the complaint says.
"The cornerstone of the defendants' scheme was the tantalizing prospect that Signal would be able to hire a skilled workforce at effectively no cost by forcing the plaintiffs and their coworkers to foot the bill for their own recruitment, immigration processing, and travel. Indeed, an April 18, 2006 'Skilled Worker Recruitment Agreement' between Signal and [defendant] Global [Resources, Inc.] that set this scheme in motion expressly stated that the workers would be delivered at no cost to Signal and that all other charge, expenses and fees would be paid by the workers themselves or by Global, who in turn would be reimbursed through deduction from the plaintiffs' wages. In short, defendants paid for nothing; the future employees paid everything.
"Beginning in mid-2206, Signal, both via its own employees and via its external agents, traveled to India in order to recruit workers, including each of the plaintiffs. In printed advertisements and in-person meetings in India, defendants promised plaintiffs that in exchange for 'recruitment fees payable to the agents, ranging anywhere from the equivalent of $10,000 to $25,000, defendants would provide jobs at Signal and assist them in apply for and receiving green cards."
These are three more in a welter of previous complaints that make similar complaints of abuse of foreign workers during rebuilding after a series of Gulf Coast Hurricanes.
Achari et al. claim that they sold family assets and took on debts to seek opportunity in America, but Signal crushed them.
"In actuality, the defendants' promises regarding green cards for plaintiffs were illusory," the complaint states. "Defendants had not taken, and had no intention at that time of taking, any steps to assist the plaintiffs in applying for or receiving green cards. To the contrary, Signal (with the knowledge and assistance of the agents) represented to the United States government that it would employ the workers only temporarily, and that the workers would be returned to India 'within the ... year.' At no point did Signal or any of the agents take any steps to assist the plaintiffs in applying for or receiving a green card.
"Plaintiffs, of course, were never told of Signal's representations to the United States government. The plaintiffs were unaware that defendants' promises of employment and permanent residency were false and relied on these false promises to their detriment.
"Put simply, plaintiffs had been deceived into taking on life-altering debt for something that was never going to happen." (Parentheses and ellipsis in complaint.)
The workers say they were subjected to deplorable conditions at Signal's labor camp on the Gulf Coast.
"Upon arrival at Signal's facilities in Mississippi, plaintiffs' plight only worsened. Signal utilized psychological abuse, coercion and fraud to leave plaintiffs afraid and unable to leave Signal's facilities and employ. Plaintiffs were required to live in camps on Signal's Pascagoula premises, enduring barbaric and prison-like conditions. Plaintiffs were among several hundred men crammed into trailer-like bunkhouses that were far too small for the number of men house therein, and otherwise unfit for human habitation. Privacy was nonexistent. Toilet and bathing facilities were insufficient. Food was often rotten. Private 'security guards' patrolled the grounds like prison guards, prevented the plaintiffs from leaving, and subjected the plaintiffs to random searches of their persons and belongings.
"Signal sought to deflect as much of the housing costs as possible onto the plaintiffs. For the 'privilege' of living in prison-like squalor, Signal deducted $35 per day from plaintiffs' paychecks, seven days a week, which constituted over 34 percent of the workers' pre-tax earnings. When workers requested permission to live off-site, they were told by Signal that they could do so, but that Signal would continue to collect the $35 per day. This compulsory deduction essentially prohibited plaintiffs from living in more humane conditions, lest their work become even less remunerative, and consequently their 'recruiting fee' debt become even more crushing.
"Non-Indian workers were not subjected to such squalid living conditions, degrading treatment, or extortionate room and board policies.
"Plaintiffs were also made to work in unsafe working conditions that non-Indian workers were not subjected to, and were forced to endure regular anti-Indian invective from Signal personnel, along with threats to deport them if they did not do Signal's every bidding. Indeed Signal housed plaintiffs in the so-called 'man-camps' so that they would not mix with the Pascagoula community. The Signal executive supervising the Pascagoula man camp referred to the facility - privately and in professional correspondence to other Signal employees - as 'the Reservation,' a term adopted from Signal's 'shipyard folks.' Another Signal employee was more direct, promising Signal management on April 5, 2007 that if he were placed in charge of the man camp, he would not give in to the 'misguided notion that some of these Indians can be reasoned with,' but would instead 'most defiantly [sic] go on a 'rat hunt.'
"Signal even forced men of Sikh heritage to shave their beards upon arriving in the camp. Wearing of a beard is an extremely important religious tradition to Sikh men, and Signal's coercion left the men, including plaintiff Ranjit Singh, reduced to tears.
"Conditions were so poor at Signal's Pascagoula facility that, after just a couple months, workers (including plaintiffs) began to consider ways to convince Signal to improve conditions. In retaliation for the workers' attempts to improve their lot, Signal terminated the employment of three of the most outspoken workers, forcibly removed them from the camp and told them they would be immediately returned to India. One of those expelled men, so distraught over the thought of returning to India with the crushing debt of the 'recruitment fees,' attempted suicide in front of one of the plaintiffs.
"Signal used this horrifying incident to its advantage. In a meeting with the workers (including the plaintiffs) days after the attempted suicide, Signal told plaintiffs that if any of the Signal workers filed a lawsuit against Signal, Signal would send all of the workers back to India. The plaintiffs understood this to mean that they must remain quiescent and work, lest Signal retaliate and ruin them financially.
"Signal employed other methods of forcing the plaintiffs to endure the abusive conditions. In keeping with its focus on deflecting labor costs, upon plaintiffs' arrival, Signal required workers to set up 'direct deposit' bank accounts with a local bank, to which Signal also had access. These accounts gave Signal control over the workers' ability to leave the facility because Signal could threaten to cut off the workers' access to the accounts at any point. Indeed, this is exactly what happened - in April 2007, after certain workers fled the Pascagoula camp, those workers were denied access to their accounts at the behest of Signal. This had the intended effect of intimidating and coercing the remaining workers, including plaintiffs, into compliance.
"Deeply indebted, fearful, isolated, disoriented, and unfamiliar with their rights under United States law, plaintiffs felt compelled to continue working for Signal, on Signal's onerous terms and in abusive conditions.
"In line with Signal's original intention as expressed to the United States government - but not to plaintiffs - to employ the workers temporarily, plaintiffs were all terminated within a year and a half of arriving in Pascagoula, or left to escape the horrid conditions."
Rats, "oppressive smells," and "surprise searches" were regular features of life at the camp, the workers say.
The complaint cites an excerpt from an email sent by the camp's manager showing that Signal knew that its Indian employees were living in filth.
"Our Indians have been dropping with sickness like flies," the manager allegedly wrote. "[They] are getting worried and believe there are unhealthful conditions in the camp. It is true."
In another email, a senior vice president at Signal allegedly acknowledged that the Indian workers were being fed "bad, stale, molded, and otherwise poor quality food."
The biggest attraction of Signal's offer, the chance of permanent residency in the United States, did not materialize for a single worker, the plaintiffs say.
"No plaintiff received a green card. Indeed, neither Signal nor the agents ever applied for a green card for any plaintiff."
The workers seek punitive damages for human trafficking, forced labor, fraudulent misrepresentation, breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, and civil rights violations.
Here are the defendants in the Mississippi complaint: Signal International LLC, Signal International Inc., Malvern C. Burnett and his law office, Gulf Coast Immigration Law Center LLC, Michael Pol, Global Resources Inc., Sachin Dewan and Dewan Consultants PVT Ltd. aka Medtech Consultants.
These plaintiffs are represented by Robert McDuff with McDuff & Byrd in Jackson, Miss.
In the Eastern District of Texas, Biju M. Joseph and 31 other Indian workers sued
Signal and its recruiters under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and the RICO Act. They are represented by Daniella Landers with Sutherland Asbill & Brennan in Houston.
Also in Beaumont Federal Court, Reji Samuel and 15 others sued
Signal and its recruiters and cohorts. Samuel et al. are represented William Boice with Kilpatrick Townsend in Atlanta.
"Signal International, LLC was organized in 2002 as a limited liability company after acquiring the offshore division of Friede Goldman Halter," the company says on its home Internet page, checked this morning.
"Signal International, Inc. was incorporated in 2007 and began operations of offshore fabrication with shipyards in Texas and Mississippi."
The page contains a link to a Signal International statement of Jan. 4, 2012, on letterhead, about a previous class action alleging slavery. The statement says, in part: "Signal International L.L.C., a leading Gulf of Mexico provider of marine and fabrication services headquartered in Mobile, Alabama received news of a complete victory in the case pending in the Eastern District of Louisiana with regard to class certification of claims against it alleging human trafficking, slave labor and fraud, among other claims. In denying class certification, United States District Judge Jay C. Zainey, observed with regard to the allegations made against Signal, '[t]o the contrary, this case involves paid workers who in fact could leave their jobs at any time, albeit under penalty of returning to their home countries but that restriction was dictated by U.S. immigration law. The workers were for the most part paid well, free to come and go as they pleased, and some even took vacations and bought cars. The pressure to work for Signal arguably came at least in part from a set of circumstances that each plaintiff individually brought upon himself when he elected to pay what is now characterized as 'exorbitant' fees to participate in the green card program.'"
Signal International reports annual revenue of more than $100 million. In the employment section of its home page this morning, it offers jobs for welders in Pascagoula.