Guest workers’ suits highlight problems with H2-B visa program

More than 140 guest workers from India have filed a total of eight suits in US federal courts charging their employer, Signal International, with human trafficking, wage theft, and other abuses.

The workers, mainly from India, are skilled welders and pipefitters recruited between 2004 and 2006 to come to the US under the H2-B guest worker program.

“All I wanted was a better life for my family,” said Sabulal Vijayan, one of the plaintiffs. “That was why I came to America. Instead, I was subjected to discrimination and abuse I never thought I’d experience in this country.”

The lawsuits demonstrate some of the problems with the current US guest worker program.

“Flaws in the US guest worker program have allowed Signal to hire a captive workforce, under false pretenses, and then subject them to abusive treatment,” said Chandra Bhatnagar, ACLU Human Rights Program staff attorney.

Signal, a marine fabrication company that does subcontracting work at shipyards along the Gulf Coast, sent labor brokers to India and the Arabian Peninsula to hire skilled workers for jobs in Orange, Texas, Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama.

Among other things, Signal said that the workers were needed because Hurricane Katrina had caused a labor shortage that the guest workers could fill.

According to one of the suits whose lead plaintiff is George Paily Paulose Chakkiyattil, the brokers charged the workers recruitment fees of between $10,000 to $16,000 with the promise that once inside the US the labor brokers and Signal would help the workers obtain a green card and permanent resident status, which never occurred.

Chakkiyattil said that in order to pay the recruitment fee some workers borrowed heavily, others sold property or cherished heirlooms, and still others used their life savings.

Once in the US, they were sent Orange, Pascagoula, and Mobile where Signal had erected labor camps where the workers were forced to live.

The company deducted $1,050 a month from the workers pay for room and board. If the workers found other living arrangements, the company still deducted the room and board payment from their pay.

At the labor camps, Signal housed the workers in trailers with between 16 and 24 workers assigned to each trailer. The trailers had only two bathrooms and the bunks were packed so closely together that it was difficult for workers to walk between them.

Security guards kept the camp under constant surveillance, and workers were not free to come and go as they pleased.

The recruitment agents kept the workers passports, and under the rules governing visas issued under the H2-B program, the workers were not free to quit their jobs and find other work.

The guest workers also said that Signal assigned them the most dangerous and difficult jobs at their work sites.

In 2007, Signal fired and had deported five workers who spoke out about the squalid conditions in the camp.

In 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action suit on behalf of the workers, but a federal judge would not allow the suit to proceed as a class action.

In the meantime, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a racial discrimination suit against Signal for its treatment of the guest workers.

After the judge ruled that there were no grounds for a class action, SPLC began recruiting private law firms to file suits on behalf of individual guest workers.

In May, three suits were filed in Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama on behalf of 83 guest workers. In August another five suits were filed on behalf of 60 guest workers.

The firms providing legal counsel are doing so pro bono.

“These cases graphically illustrate the need for stronger regulation of both the U.S. companies that hire guest workers and of their labor recruiters here and abroad,” said Bill Beardall, director of the Equal Justice Center in Austin. “Better regulation could prevent abuses like these from occurring in the first place.”

According to Beardall, some of the abuses cited in the suits are addressed by proposed immigration reform but others are not.

“The Indian workers who came to this country through Signal’s recruitment effort were skilled laborers seeking opportunity, but they were forced into modern-day indentured servitude,” said Daniel Werner, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “These cases highlight the urgent need for stronger foreign labor recruiter regulations and better protections for workers – some of which are included in the US Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill.”

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