Forced Labor Trial Begins in New Orleans

     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.
     Howard said that after the first Indians began to arrive in 2006, one of the company’s recruiters wrote an email to Signal: “One of us needs to be with the candidates” as they enter customs coming into the country, “they say the dumbest things and need to be coached.”
     The email went on to complain about one worker who told officials he was getting a green card from Signal and referred to the man as a “goner.”
     Howard showed a portion of deposition from Signal CEO Dick Marler, who was asked why company officials didn’t give back the fees workers paid or stop offering green cards when they knew the promises were false.
     “We needed workers,” Marler replied.
     Erin Casey Hangartner, appearing on behalf of Signal International, told the jury they had heard many emotionally charged statements over the course of day, statements that repeatedly raised the specter of “cheap labor, expendable labor.”
     Hangartner thought the jury needed to see the situation in a different light.
     “This is a case about a company bringing the Gulf Coast up from its knees,” she said. “It’s not a case about ‘cheap labor.'”
     Hangartner emphasized the need for workers after Hurricane Katrina, and said the work required skilled pipefitters, not just anybody “off the street.”
     She said the trailers at the camp weren’t doublewide trailers but doublewide prefab housing units, and that Signal international contracted with the owner of a New Orleans Indian restaurant to provide the workers with three Indian meals a day.
     “There were complaints” about housing, Hangartner said. She acknowledged that Signal CEO Marler himself said the housing units were too small the first time he walked through.’ We need more beds, more toilets,'” Marler had said.
     But Hangartner said even though there were just two sinks and two toilets in each bunk house, there were entire trailers that were just sinks and just toilets.
     “Signal went above and beyond to make its workers happy,” she said.
     “Don’t think that everything was those bunk rooms,” Hangartner said. Buses were hired to take the men on outings, to Wal-Mart and to do other shopping , she said. Also, they were taken on weekend trips to a bar.
     She also noted that at the shipbuilding facility itself, Signal provided a prayer room and a TV room with an Indian station.
     Hangartner said the workers’ claims they were forced to live at the camp wasn’t quite true, but it was true that the camp was the best place for them to live. The workers came from India without drivers’ licenses or bank accounts or any paperwork that would have helped them to find a better place to live, she said.
     “The bottom line,” she said, was at the time there just weren’t enough available houses for 290 extra people in Pascacoula, Mississippi.
     The workers complained about having $1,000 deducted every month from their checks to cover rent, but Hangartner said that amount covered everything: rent, food, utilities.
     Two hundred of the workers were direct hires by Signal and received the same benefits as any other Signal employee, including health insurance and a 401K, Hangartner said.
     As for Signal’s promises the workers would receive permanent status, Hangartner said the company was new to hiring foreign workers and “didn’t understand” how it was done, so it hired an immigration attorney, New Orleans-based Malvern Burnett, and he explained the method.
     You cannot enter the United States with the intention of staying in the United States, Hangartner said. So Burnett explained to Signal the way immigration needed to be handled, and Signal took his word.
     The method was H2B temporary visa, then “extension, extension, green card,” Hangartner said.
     The extensions on the H2B visa can only be applied for by the same company that originally granted the work visa, so employees have to stay at the same job if they want to stay in the United States.
     “You hear: ‘They were tied to their employer!’ They were,” Hangartner said. “The law is you have to work for the same employer that sponsored you for the H2B visa. … Signal International did not bind these workers to Signal. The law binded them.”
     Hangartner said Signal trusted its attorney, and that Burnett was the one calling all the shots with regard to immigration promises and paperwork.
     “Are you supposed to hire an attorney to make sure your attorney tells the truth?” Hangartner asked. “That defies logic.”
     “Malvern Burnett led the workers to believe [getting a green card] was an easy process,” Hangartner said.
     She said one of the recruiters, Michael Pol, was fired after Signal found out that money was being taken from the workers before they left India and that false promises were being made. Signal “compromised,” Hangartner said, by helping some of the workers’ families to come over.
     “Do you cut them off? Do you leave them in India? Do you leave them in India knowing they cannot make a fraction of the money they could make in the United States?” Hangertner asked.
     She said Signal did what it thought was most beneficial for the workers after it found out they’d paid thousands of dollars to come over.
     Next, Tim Cherniglia, representing Malvern Burnett, said “Signal knew exactly what they were doing.”
     The opening statements concluded with Steve Shapiro appearing on behalf of Sachin Dewan, a former recruiter for Signal International. Shapiro told jurors: “Signal is undoubtedly trying to blame everyone for their own problems.”
     He said Dewan was hired to recruit workers in India on behalf of Signal, and that the arrangement was well understood by both parties: fees were to be charged to workers themselves, not signal, and signal would deduct fees for food and housing from workers’ wages.
     This is the first of many trials Signal International faces in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi after class action certification was denied by a federal judge last year. Allegations are the company brought over as many as 500 Indian workers, took the workers’ money on the false promise they would become permanent U.S. residents and forced them to work at Signal’s Pascagoula shipyard.
     The federal jury trial continues Wednesday and is slated to last five weeks.

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