H-2 workers file suit, march to DC

On March 7, a group of Indian welders, pipe-fitters, and marine fabrication workers employed under the federal H-2B visa program filed a federal lawsuit against Signal International, alleging that they were lured to work at the company’s shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Tex., with false promises of permanent US residency. Once in the US, the workers say they were forced into involuntary servitude and overcrowded labor camps. The class action lawsuit, David v. Signal Int’l LLC, was filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, in New Orleans, by several organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

According to the suit, a network of recruiters and labor brokers engineered a scheme to defraud the workers. The suit seeks injunctive relief, compensatory damages, and punitive damages for all Indian H-2B guestworkers who were recruited by Signal International since 2003 and who traveled or were transported to the US under the auspices of H-2B visas assigned to Signal. The class is believed to number more than 500 individuals.

The plaintiffs claimed they were trafficked into the US in late 2006 and early 2007 through the H-2B temporary guestworker program to work for Signal after many workers left the region following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. After the workers arrived, they discovered they would not receive green cards as promised but only 10-month H-2B guestworker visas. Led by class representative Kurian David, the plaintiffs say they incurred substantial debt, liquidated their life savings, and sold their family homes in India to pay mandatory recruitment, immigration processing, and travel fees totaling as much as $20,000 per worker. The main recruiting agents in India and the United Arab Emirates held the workers’ passports and visas and threatened, coerced, and defrauded them, the complaint states. The plaintiffs say they were forced to live in guarded, overcrowded, and isolated labor camps while the company deducted $1,050 per month from their paychecks for room and board. According to the plaintiffs, Signal “generally perpetrated a campaign of psychological abuse, coercion, and fraud designed to render plaintiffs and other class members afraid, intimidated, and unable to leave Signal’s employ.”

Two plaintiffs charged that Signal attempted to forcibly and unlawfully deport them in retaliation for speaking out against discriminatory conditions in the company’s labor camp in Pascagoula. Several workers were illegally detained by company security guards during a pre-dawn raid of their quarters after they began organizing other workers to complain about abuses they faced.

The suit says Signal violated the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and the Fair Labor Standards Act. (BNA Daily Labor Report, March 14)

The litigation came out of a broader organizing campaign spearheaded by the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. On March 6, a day before filing the lawsuit, nearly 100 of the H-2B workers reported themselves to the Justice Department as victims of and witnesses to human trafficking, and demanded federal prosecution of Signal. They then marched to the main gates of the Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula carrying signs with the word “dignity.” In a symbolic action, the workers down threw their hard hats toward Signal’s main gate. (BNA Daily Labor Report, March 14; WKRG.com, Mobile, AL, March 6; New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice press release, March 6)

On March 18, over 100 of the workers launched a nine-day journey by foot and bus from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to demand a meeting with Indian ambassador Ronen Sen and call for an end to abuses of the H2B guestworker program. They described their protest as a satyagraha, a word used by Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi to describe a nonviolent battle against injustice.

The workers met with a growing network of supporters and allies as they traveled through key sites of the US civil rights struggle of the 1960s. On Mar. 20, the workers rallied at the capitol in Jackson, Miss., where worker and organizer Sabulal Vijayan challenged Signal “to hire poor and African-American workers from Mississippi to take our place.” Vijayan presented a list of 10 certified Indian trainers from the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity who are willing to train Mississippi workers if Signal will hire them. “We don’t just want Signal to hire workers on Signal’s terms,” clarified Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “We want Signal to hire workers from Mississippi with a union contract, with fair wages, with health benefits, with immigrant rights, with a chance to move forward and make life better for all of Mississippi.”

On March 21, the workers visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala., then marched through and out of the city. As they left the Memorial Center, organizers questioned undercover immigration agents at the scene who reluctantly admitted engaging in ongoing surveillance of the group. Montgomery police also tried to stop the marchers on their way through the city, claiming they needed a permit, but eventually let them continue. The workers spent March 23-25 in Atlanta, staying in a church and meeting with supporters and media, then made a stop in Greensboro, NC, before arriving in Washington on March 27.

In Washington, nearly 100 of the workers held a three-hour meeting with Ambassador Sen in the central hall of the Embassy of India. The workers planned to remain in Washington for a week and meet with members of Congress. A rally was scheduled for 11:30am on March 31 in front of the White House with support from the labor solidarity organization Jobs with Justice. The workers’ journey is chronicled in a text and photo blog at nolaworkerscenter.wordpress.com. (New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice press release, March 18; AP, March 20; BBC News, March 27; blog postings from nolaworkerscenter.wordpress.com)

Signal International issued a statement on March 27 saying it would hire no new temporary workers under the H2B program until the program is “reformed to better protect foreign workers and US companies that were misled by recruiters.” Signal accused recruitment firm Global Resources of deceiving the Indian workers and said it has ended its contract with the company. Global Resources claimed that Signal was “totally and completely in charge of the relationship with the Indian workers,” including their visa and living arrangements. (BBC News, March 27)

From Immigration News Briefs, March 29

See our last post on the politics of immigration.