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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Giant Human Smuggling Trial Begins Today

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Trial begins Monday in a federal class action accusing Signal International of human trafficking and labor abuses in the massive construction work needed after Hurricane Katrina.

Roughly 500 workers, mostly from India and the United Arab Emirates, claim Signal lured them to the United States with false promises of permanent U.S. residency and charged them "travel fees" of as much as $20,000 apiece for jobs at shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss. and Orange, Texas.

Jury selection begins Monday morning, followed by opening arguments.

The class action was filed in 2008 by 12 lead plaintiffs who said they were forced to work long hours for next to nothing and had money deducted from their checks each month for housing in an overcrowded, unsanitary labor camp.

At least five similar lawsuits against Signal have been filed in Mississippi and Texas courts, alleging Signal trafficked Indian workers after the hurricane, assigned them the most dangerous jobs and threatened them with financial ruin and deportation if they did not comply.

The workers say they paid thousands of dollars apiece as recruitment, visa and travel "fees," because they were told doing so would lead to good jobs and permanent U.S. residency. Many workers say they sold their houses to get the money, or took out high-interest loans to get to the United States to work.

But when they arrived in 2006 and 2007, they say, they learned there would be no green cards, and Signal took more than $1,000 a month from their paychecks, ostensibly for housing in isolated, fenced labor camps, where as many as two dozen men shared one trailer and only two toilets. They had to pay the money even if they lived elsewhere, they say.

The workers are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Crowell & Moring, Coschignano & Baker, The Louisiana Justice Institute and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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