NEW ORLEANS (CN) - As opening arguments began Tuesday in a case highlighting serious flaws in the nation's guest worker program, a few things were beyond dispute.
In late 2006, pressed by a backlog of contracts to repair oil platforms and vessels damaged by Hurricane Katrina, Signal International began recruiting workers from India. The first arrived in November 2006, and soon, nearly 600 Indian workers were put to work at Signal's plants in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas.
Two years later, the workers began filing what grew to be more than a dozen lawsuits, claiming they were lured to the U.S. with false promises of green cards only to find themselves confined to a crowded, unsanitary camp.
But as the trial on these claims got underway at the federal courthouse in New Orleans, attorneys representing four separate interests gave conflicting accounts of how the workers wound up living together in several tiny trailers, whether the men were promised permanent citizenship, and if they were allowed to leave.
Alan Howard, representing the Indian workers, said officials at Signal International thought the Indian workers would be happy to live together in tiny trailers with just two toilets each because they were coming from India, and anything provided to them would be better than living back home.
Howard quoted from an email from an American worker at Signal International upon seeing the camp of trailers. With indoor plumbing and lots of space between the beds, the man reportedly said the Indian workers would think the camp was like the "Taj Mahal" and would be happy to just roll out of bed and go to work.
That same man later told attorneys he only thought this because of what he'd heard about the living conditions in India - stories that recounted their digging ditches for sanitation, and about how bad Indians smelled.
Although the first of the workers began to arrive only in late 2006, by early 2007 the men were already falling ill due to the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions at the camp, Howard said.
Howard quoted from the private journal entry of the same American worker who had made the "Taj Mahal" remark.
An entry from February 2007 notes the horrid conditions and the Indians' resulting sickness: "Our men have been dropping with sickness like blocks," he wrote, going on to say that shoddy plumbing had resulted in pools of standing water "everywhere" that created a "bacterial breeding" camp.
Howard said one of the Indian workers became so sick he had to be hospitalized.
Howard said the Indian workers were lured to the United States with promises of permanent residency, and that they had paid Signal recruiters as much as $20,000 apiece, for which they'd sold their valuables and took out high-interest loans.
Signal International acknowledges the Indians came to the United States with their own money and on false promises, but insists the untruths and unfair payments were the work of their own lawyers and of "unscrupulous" third party recruiters.
Signal has brought cross claims against the lawyers and recruiters, saying they promised permanent visas without Signal's knowing; but Howard said that even while Signal publically blamed the other parties, it continued to work with those parties and continued to make false promises to recruit cheap labor.
Howard pointed to an internal email from Signal about recruitment that instructs that the "permanent status" will continue.