GULFPORT, Miss. (CN) - Signal International enslaved and defrauded hundreds of foreign workers after charging them thousands of dollars apiece to be trafficked into the United States to clean up Gulf Coast areas devastated by hurricanes, the workers claim in five lawsuits.
In federal lawsuits in Gulfport, Miss. and Beaumont, Texas, the workers claim Signal and others enslaved them in peonage, involuntary servitude and forced labor after defrauding and trafficking them into prisonlike conditions.
The lawsuits claim that lead defendant Signal, its labor recruiters and others brought 590 foreign workers into the country, exploited them inhumanely and threatened to deport them if they complained.
Citations in this article are taken from one of two lawsuits filed in Gulfport this week. Lead plaintiff George Paily Paulose Chakkiyattil has 27 co-plaintiffs.
Chakkiyattil claims Signal, an Alabama-based marine and fabrication services provider, charged them $10,000 to $16,000 apiece in "recruitment fees," then never even bothered to apply for green cards for the workers, as promised.
"The plaintiffs are 28 men from India," Chakkiyattil says in the 123-page lawsuit. "They were promised employment, prosperity and permanent residence in the United States. They each paid thousands of dollars in recruitment fees to take advantage of the promised opportunity, incurring substantial debt. When they arrived in the United States, they were forced, under threat of removal to India and economic ruin, to perform arduous work in dangerous conditions and to pay exorbitant costs for substandard housing and food."
Both Gulfport lawsuits name as defendants Signal International and several Louisiana- and India-based recruiters and "consultants."
The workers claim Signal's agents recruited them from India from 2003 to 2006, charging them $10,000 to $16,000 apiece in "recruitment fees."
After waiting for another employment opportunity that never materialized, the guest workers ended up working at Signal's facilities in Pascagoula, Miss. and Orange, Texas, according to the complaints.
The recruiters advertised jobs in the United States, held meetings and testing sessions, and promised they would apply for green cards on behalf of the workers and their families, which they would receive within two years of arriving in the United States, Chakkiyattil says in the complaint.
He claims the defendants assured workers they would not need to pay any more fees for the green cards, and that the recruitment fees they had paid would be refunded if the green card applications failed.
"After Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, Signal required laborers to replace Signal employees who had been displaced by the storm and to fulfill the demand for repairs and fabrication caused by damage from the storm," the complaint states.
"In or around May or June 2006, Signal authorized [co-defendants] Dewan [Consultants aka Medtech Consultants], Global Resources and [Law Offices of Malvern C.] Burnett to act as its agents in India and the United Arab Emirates for the purpose of recruiting Indian welders and fitters.
"Signal further authorized its agents to represent that Signal would assume, from [defendant] J & M Associates [of Mississippi], sponsorship of the pending green card applications on behalf of plaintiffs and others, and that Signal would apply for at least two H-2B visa extensions on behalf of all the Indian H-2B workers, including plaintiffs, to allow them to remain in the United States working for Signal while their green card applications were being processed."
But Signal and the recruiters never intended to apply for green cards or visa extensions for the guest workers, and did not refund any fees, according to the complaint.
Chakkiyattil claims Signal told workers that they would lose their recruitment fees if they did not work for Signal.
Before the workers left for the United States, Signal's Indian agent, defendant Sachin Dewan, forced them to sign documents in English, which they did not understand and were not allowed to review, and confiscated all the documents they had signed, according to the complaint.
More than 500 Indian H-2B workers arrived in the United States from October 2006 to April 2007. About 300 of them, including the plaintiffs, were sent to Signal's Pascagoula plant, according to the lawsuit.
"Signal constructed a labor camp in fall 2006 to house Indian workers," the complaint states. "Signal employees and management referred to the Pascagoula camp as 'the reservation.' Plaintiffs were required to live in the camp.
"The Pascagoula camp was isolated, overcrowded, unsanitary and not suitable for human habitation.
"Signal crowded sixteen to twenty-four men into each of the camp's housing units. The bunk beds were so tightly packed that plaintiffs could barely walk between them. The top bunks were so close to the ceiling, and the bottom bunks so close to the top bunks, that plaintiffs could barely sit up in their beds.
"The housing units had insufficient toilet and showering facilities. Lines for the bathroom were consistently very long and plaintiffs had to wait in line for hours to use the toilet. With three or fewer showers per housing unit, hot water ran out quickly and plaintiffs were often only able to take cold showers after their long waits in line.
"The housing units had little or no space to store personal belongings. Plaintiffs instead often kept their clothing - even if wet and soiled from work - in bed with them because there was no other place to put it.
"The housing units provided no privacy. Sleep was difficult due to the noise from such close quarters, oppressive smells and the comings and goings of workers who worked on different shifts. Workers, including some plaintiffs, saw rats and mice in their sleeping areas and a wasps' nest in one housing unit."
The workers claim Signal gave them unhealthy, insect-infested food, which often made them sick.
"Signal personnel told workers, including plaintiff Padinhare, that they should not complain because the food was better in the camp than the food in India," according to the complaint.
Chakkiyattil claims Signal charged workers $35 a day for room and board, forced them to live in its camp, and had security guards monitor them all the time.
"The camp was located in an isolated industrial area far from other residential communities, shopping facilities, houses of worship and other basic amenities," the complaint states.
"The camp was enclosed by fences and barbed wire and was accessible only by a few entrances, which were watched by security guards at all times.
"When leaving or entering the camp, plaintiffs were required to show identification, tell the guards where they were going to or coming from, and subject themselves and their belongings to search. Plaintiffs' movements into and out of the camp were recorded.
"Posters around the camp featured pictures of cameras and the words 'I'm watching you.'
"Guests normally were not permitted in the camp, and plaintiffs were permitted visitors only in the parking lot. Plaintiffs were specifically prohibited from receiving visitors from not-for-profit organizations that might advise plaintiffs of their rights under state and federal law or provide other supportive services.
"Because the camp was isolated, plaintiffs generally had to rely on Signal-provided transportation to take them to populated areas, which Signal only offered after workers had been at the camp for some time. But Signal would generally only provide transportation to Wal-Mart or the bank. Even then, plaintiffs had little privacy because Signal security would sometimes follow them into Wal-Mart.
"Signal's private security forces entered plaintiffs' housing units at night. Signal personnel and camp security guards conducted searches of the housing units, including searches of workers' personal belongings.
"Plaintiffs were not told when these searches would be conducted and were not told what Signal was looking for."
The plaintiffs claim Signal employees and supervisors often used offensive and racist language toward Indian workers, disrespected their religious beliefs and assigned them dangerous tasks that other workers did not receive.
They claim Signal never ended its relationship with its recruiters, including Dewan and attorney Burnett, despite acknowledging that the recruitment fees were excessive.
They claim that when workers complained, Signal threatened to stop the green card applications, block access to their bank accounts and send them back to India.
In early 2007, Signal fired and deported five of the "camp leaders" for their efforts to organize workers, according to the complaint.
"Early in the morning of March 9, 2007, when the workers for both the day and night shifts were present at the camp, Signal locked the gate to the camp, blocking the exits," the complaint states. "Signal personnel, including several security guards, then swept through the housing units carrying pictures of the workers targeted for termination. Because Signal personnel could not tell the workers apart from each other, they accosted numerous workers, including plaintiff Shukla, to determine whether they were among the people shown in the pictures.
"By 6:00 a.m., Signal had identified the five workers, taken them into 'custody' in a side room, and told them that they were fired and would be deported. Distraught at what that meant for him and his family, one of the workers, Sabulal Vijayan, attempted to commit suicide by slashing his wrists. Several plaintiffs observed Signal personnel carrying Vijayan, covered in blood, out of the side room. Several plaintiffs saw the other four workers who were being detained through a window and became frightened that they too might be detained.
"The incidents of March 9, 2007, or 'Black Friday' as some workers call it, caused plaintiffs to fear what Signal would do to them if they expressed concerns about conditions at the camp. Plaintiffs believed, based on Signal's conduct, that requesting improved conditions or asserting their rights to the same would lead to arrest, imprisonment, bodily harm and deportation back to India."
The plaintiffs claim that despite Signal's threats and false promises, more than 75 percent of the Indian workers left its Pascagoula camp by December 2008.
None of the plaintiffs received green cards.
The workers seek compensatory and punitive damages for forced labor and trafficking, civil rights violations, fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract.
They are represented by Robert McDuff with McDuff & Byrd, of Jackson, and Eben Colby with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, of Boston.
Named as defendants in both complaints are: Signal International LLC, Signal International Inc., Malvern C. Burnett, Law Offices of Malvern C. Burnett, Gulf Coast Immigration Law Center, Global Resources, Sachin Dewan, and Dewan Consultants aka Medtech Consultants.
Chakkiyattil's complaint also names now-dissolved companies J & M Associates Inc. of Mississippi and J & M Marine & Industrial, and their director Billy Wilks.
Labor brokers Indo-Ameri Soft and Kurella Rao are additional defendants in the second complaint.
Three similar lawsuits were filed Wednesday in Beaumont, Texas.
"I am astounded at this abuse of the legal system," Signal CEO Richard Marler said in a June 26 statement, in response to similar lawsuits. "These are the same exaggerated claims which have been exposed as false allegations by a Federal Court judge well over a year and a half ago. Signal made every attempt to bring these H2B workers into the Signal family of employees and treated them with dignity and respect just as we treat each and every Signal employee."
Signal declined to comment on the recent lawsuits.
Burnett and Gulf Coast Immigration could not be reached for comment.