Bringing an end to one of the largest-ever human trafficking cases in U.S. history, shipping giant Signal International LLC agreed July 12 to settle 11 lawsuits for a total of $20 million on behalf of 200 Indian guest workers who were brought to the U.S. in 2006 to repair the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast and forced to live and work in squalid conditions.

The Southern Poverty Law Center announced the settlement July 14. The settlement will have to be approved by a local bankruptcy court, since Signal declared Chapter 11 July 12, and a claimants’ trust would then be set up to pay the guest workers, who claimed they were lured to the U.S. under false pretenses of being able to obtain a green card to permanently remain in the country.

“We’re getting towards the end of a very long struggle. The workers will finally get the justice they deserve and we’re proud to represent them,” Jim Knoepp, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told India-West shortly after the July 12 settlement was announced.

Knoepp said he was confident that the settlement would be approved by the bankruptcy court.

The funds for the settlement would be based on the assets from the sale of Signal International’s facility in Orange, Texas, which sold last year for an estimated $30 million, according to Knoepp. Claimants in the 11 lawsuits could receive an additional $2 million in interest if the settlement is paid out over time, the attorney told India-West.

The workers’ immigration status or their current country of residence – the U.S. or India – will not affect their ability to participate in the settlement if they were claimants in any of the lawsuits, clarified Knoepp.

When they arrived in the U.S. in 2006, the Indian welders and pipe-fitters – some of whom paid recruiters more than $20,000 for the opportunity to work in the country – reportedly were forced to live in squalid conditions, sleeping in small, cramped quarters and receiving sub-standard food. Costs for boarding and lodging — $1,050 per month — were deducted from the guest workers’ paychecks. The workers received $18 per hour.

In earlier interviews with India-West, workers told this publication they had sold family farms and heirloom jewelry to pay the recruiters’ fees. Dewan Consulting was used by Signal in India to hire guest workers primarily from Kerala; recruiters charged fees of $15,000 to $20,000, promising the workers they would receive a green card and eventually be able to bring their families to reside permanently in the U.S.

Indian guest workers told this publication that they were forced to live and work in slave-like conditions and were not allowed to leave the facility to find accommodation elsewhere.

Several hundred workers “escaped” Signal’s facilities in 2008. The workers then embarked on a nine-day march by foot to Washington, D.C., to share their plight with the Indian Embassy and members of Congress.

Earlier this year, a New Orleans, Louisiana, jury awarded $14 million to five former Signal guest workers, the largest-ever award in a human trafficking case (see India-West’s story here: http://bit.ly/17hU9h7).

Signal International had not responded to India-West’s calls for comment by press time. But in a statement released to this publication after the February verdict, the Mobile, Alabama-headquartered company noted that it had hired 500 guest workers under the H-2B visa program, which allows companies to bring in foreign workers when an insufficient supply of U.S. workers with a particular skill set are unavailable.

“At Signal, employees under this program were given the same compensation package as similarly situated employees who held U.S. citizenship,” stated the company. “Signal paid employees holding U.S. government H-2B visas over $18 per hour, provided medical benefits, safety bonuses, matching 401(k) plans, and overtime pay.”

“Signal strongly disagrees with rulings from the court in the case which impacted its ability to present defenses and is disappointed with the verdict,” said the company, noting at that time that it planned to appeal the verdict.

In earlier interviews with India-West, a Signal company spokesman said the company had built special accommodations for the Indian guest workers, including recreational facilities and hired special cooks to provide culturally-appropriate food.

As part of the July 12 settlement, Signal has agreed to issue an apology to the guest workers.

“This agreement will ensure some compensation for these workers who only sought a better life when they took these jobs,” said Alan Howard, SPLC board chairman and a partner in Crowell & Moring’s New York office. “They persevered and won justice. This agreement sends a powerful message that guest workers have rights and cannot be exploited,” he said in a press statement announcing the settlement.

Crowell & Moring served as the SPLC’s co-counsel in the trial along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Coschignano & Baker, and the Louisiana Justice Institute.

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