Signal shipyard in Orange, Texas
Last week, a federal jury in the Eastern District of Louisiana awarded $14 million to five Indian laborers who had been deceptively recruited to work in Pascagoula, Mississippi and Orange, Texas:
The workers paid fees of more than $10,000 to Signal recruiters who coordinated the hiring of some 500 welders and pipefitters in 2005, as the company faced a shortage of skilled labor and a glut of work in the months after Hurricane Katrina. Workers arrived in the United States to find that recruiters’ promise of green cards — and permanent U.S. residency — were false, and that they would have to live in the cramped quarters of ‘man camps’ adjacent to the shipyard [paying $1050 per month for a double-wide trailer with two toilets shared by 24 men]. Under laws governing guest workers, the men could not take other jobs in the U.S. and faced massive debt if they returned home.
The most unique part of their story is that these laborers were found, identified as victims of labour trafficking, and a case successfully brought against the traffickers for exploitation, fraud, discrimination, and racketeering (a civil suit through the Southern Poverty Law Center, David v Signal Int’l LLC, 2:08-cv-01220). These five men were among approximately 590 laborers brought by Signal under H-2B visas to work in its shipyards after Katrina.
The rest of the story is common. In the U.S., labour trafficking often has a slight perversion from the debt bondage in South Asia: instead of workers being paid advances by their employers, workers frequently pay recruitment fees to secure their jobs. These fees often amount to a year’s salary in the home country, and are raised through moneylenders and mortgage of house, farm, and any other family land. The worker whose job does not pan out faces the loss of nearly everything, for self and for family also.
The recruitment fees the men paid were illegal: charging job placement fees to H-2 visa holders is forbidden. A study released last year by the Urban Institute found that “On average, victims [of labour trafficking] paid $6,150 in recruitment fees to recruitment agencies for jobs in the United States,” an amount “higher than the annual per capita income of the top six countries of origin for victims” in the study, namely Mexico, Philippines, India, Thailand, Guatemala, and Indonesia. Likewise, a 2013 study by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, focusing on migrants recruited from Mexico to the U.S., found that 59% of migrants paid illegal recruitment fees.
Another story out of Katrina–one of the first to emerge in 2007–involved Thai workers who had been recruited on H2-A visas for farm work in North Carolina, paying $11000 or more for these opportunities. Pay was less, hours less, and living conditions far worse than promised, and their passports illegally confiscated on arrival. At this point, a trafficking offense could have been made out. It got worse. A few months after their arrival, the labor recruiter sent the workers for demolition work in New Orleans. From the amended complaint: worse than unsanitary living conditions in a condemned hotel, an supervisor armed with a gun and orders to shoot any outsiders who came to the site, and simply no paychecks at all, and hunger. These allegations are uncomfortably similar to what we see here, in South Asia.
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