In 2005, Hurricane Katrina not only almost destroyed New Orleans and wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast. The hurricane may also have opened the door for human trafficking for one company, according to lawsuits filed in Texas and Mississippi on Tuesday.
The swathe of destruction Hurricane Katrina cut along the Gulf Coast was a disaster for the history books, but there were also practical concerns to be considered once the storm had passed, like how companies would get enough people to work for them since their employees were scattered in the wake of the storm.
The shipyard company Signal International LLC suddenly didn't have enough hands for the work coming into the shipyards in Orange, Texas and Pascagoula, Mississippi. The company turned to the H-2B temporary worker program to solve the labor crisis, but while they were supposed to be bringing in temporary non-agricultural workers for employment, they were allegedly bringing in Indian workers who were treated as modern indentured servants, according to Daniella Landers, an attorney at Sutherland Asbill and Brennan LLP.
Recruiters advertising in India and the United Arab Emirates told the recruits that if they paid $20,000 to $25,000 in recruiting fees, they would go to work in the United States with the opportunity to get green cards and become permanent residents, Landers said.
"They lured them with false promises and then, unfortunately, once they got here they weren't even treated as second-class citizens. They were treated as second-class people," she said.
In October 2006, Signal allegedly started bringing in more than 500 Indian guest workers this way, employing them as pipe fitters, welders and ship fitters.
The men had to eat in company cafeterias and pay more than $1,000 a month to live in company man camps - trailers with beds stacked inside them, and one or two bathrooms to be shared between 20 to 24 men. The camps were fenced and segregated from other Signal employees, and the men were told that the money for the camps would be taken out of their pay whether they chose to live there or not, Landers said.
If workers complained they were told their H-2B visas would not be renewed by the company. That pretty much tied their hands because Signal was the company that got the H-2B visas. An H-2B visa keeps the worker tethered to the company that procures the visa so finding another visa would be a challenge, to say the least.
Landers noted that many of the guest workers sold everything of value, borrowed from family members and went into debt to pay the recruiters for this "opportunity," effectively trapping them at Signal since they faced poverty, owed money and might go to prison for failing to pay their debts if they returned home.
Some of the workers did start talking about the conditions they were in, at which point Signal didn't renew their worker visas. Meanwhile, the workers who found ways to get other H-2B visas, or other ways of staying in the country moved forward with a law suit.
In March 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit, David vs. Signal International.
The case was filed as a class action suit on behalf of hundreds of guest workers claiming forced labor, human trafficking, fraud, racketeering and civil rights violations, but the class action part of things was rejected by the judge in January 2012. That pretty much led directly to the filing of suits for individual guest workers on Tuesday, two lawsuits in Texas and one in Mississippi.
Here in Texas, lawyers filed two lawsuits on behalf of a total of 50 workers, with Sutherland Asbill and Brennan LLP filing a suit on behalf of 33 workers, and Kilpatrick Townsend and Stockton LLP filing on behalf of 17 workers. Both lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court for Eastern Texas. Another suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern Mississippi representing 33 workers. (The suits represent 83 workers total, but claim that more than 500 Indian workers have been this type of "guest worker" at Signal.)
Various law firms have signed on to represent these workers pro bono. Landers said they are seeking damages equivalent to the money lost to the workers and the psychological and emotional damage that moving to a whole new country with the intention of starting a new life only to find you're not exactly free, you're not exactly rolling in dough and if you go home there are a lot of debt collectors and family members you'll have to face.
"One of the plaintiffs in the David case attempted to commit suicide. The fear of having to return back home and owing that much money for many of them was overbearing," Landers said.
These suits show the loopholes built into the guest worker laws, and it's worth noting that since 2006 Texas has led the nation in the number of H-2B workers employed in the state, Landers said.
We contacted the folks at Signal International to hear their take on all of this, but we haven't heard back yet, though the nice lady we talked to said she'd pass on the message.
The lawsuits were just filed Tuesday so it will be a while before we see how these suits play out in court, but we'll be watching it because a rose by any other name probably smells pretty good, but there's a huge difference between being a guest worker and being a victim of human trafficking.