Trafficking in the U.S.: After Hurricane Katrina

Signal shipyard in Orange, Texas

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.

93. Throughout plaintiffs’ time in New Orleans, defendants harbored plaintiffs in several storm-damaged hotels. The condition of the hotels worsened; the last hotel in which defendants harbored the plaintiffs was condemned. This hotel had no electricity or hot water, was heavily damaged by flooding, and was filled with debris and mold. The water from the tap was not potable. Plaintiffs had to cook in the hallway on the portable propane stove they previously used in North Carolina, and had no choice but to use the contaminated water to cook.

94. During plaintiffs’ time in New Orleans, Defendant Million USA had an agent known as “Louang” supervise plaintiffs at all times of the day and night. . . . Louang warned plaintiffs against leaving the condemned hotel, saying they could be either arrested or attacked by criminals. He instructed plaintiffs to keep the curtains closed, not use candles, and not make noise at night. He also reiterated Defendant Homsombath’s warnings to plaintiffs that they would be arrested if they left their employment with Defendant Million USA.

95. Defendant Homsombath also gave a gun to Louang, and told him to shoot any outsiders who came to the hotel. Louang kept the gun with him at the hotel throughout plaintiffs’ stay. Because of these actions and representations and the dire situation in the city in general, with the National Guard patrolling the streets, plaintiffs were extremely fearful throughout their time in New Orleans that they would be arrested or harmed if they left Defendant Million USA.

96. Plaintiffs were not paid for the work they performed for defendants in New Orleans. Louang charged the plaintiffs for buying food for them. With no pay, the plaintiffs could not buy enough food and suffered from hunger.

On 24 October 2009, the federal court in the Eastern District of North Carolina entered a default judgment on behalf of the twenty-two Thai workers, awarding treble damages of nearly $1 million for violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and of RICO (Asanok et al v Million Express Manpower, 5:07-cv-00048). Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that they will ever collect a penny of it.

I mention this, because I am often asked by colleague and advocates here about whether trafficking exists in the U.S., and what it looks like. Yes, it exists. Yes, here is some of what labour trafficking looks like in my backyard. And I feel that if I were back in my “native place”, I’d likely get the questions, too, of whether trafficking exists here as well. Yes, it does.

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